There is not much known or talked about head and neck cancers because they comprise of only about 4-5% in the United States. However, the incidences of this cancer are comparatively higher in developing countries like India and South-east Asia which is about 25%. Moreover, there is a noticeable increase in the number of cases because of an unhealthy lifestyle.
Whenever there is any problem in the regions of the head and neck, the individual would first visit an ENT (Ear-Nose-Throat) or a dental practitioner. These practitioners treat superficial signs, without addressing or detecting the underlying cause. If there is a risk of cancer, it goes unnoticed which could delay detection and treatment. This is a major reason for the increase in the instances of head and neck cancer. Delay in detection also results in delay in timely, appropriate and effective cancer treatment.
What is head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancer is the term used to refer to a various malignant tumour that grows within or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. Head and neck cancer includes cases like mouth cancer, cancer of the thyroid, cancer of the larynx (also known voice box cancer), tumour of the salivary gland and cancer of any organ or gland in the regions of the head and neck.
Types and causes
Dr Anil K D’Cruz stated in a Facebook live session that, “the commonest types of head and neck cancer are those of the thyroid gland, salivary gland, skins around the head and neck region and cancer caused by HPV infection. The occurrence of head and neck cancer in India is about 25% and is majorly attributed to the consumption of tobacco and alcohol.” Dr D’Cruz is one of the most senior and renowned oncologists in India with over 30 years of surgical experience. His main focus is in the treatment of head and neck cancer. With his vast knowledge and global exposure, he has pioneered the course of head and neck cancer treatment in India.
The primary reason for the cause of head and neck cancer are alcohol and tobacco. About 80% of head and neck cancers are linked to consumption of alcohol, smoking or both. Environmental factors can also attribute to increasing risk factors, for e.g. individuals working in metal industries, construction sites, etc.
Human papillomavirus virus (HPV) is also a major risk factor for certain types of cancers of the head and neck, particularly those involving tonsils or tongue base. Furthermore, prolonged exposure to the sun can also a potential risk factor for the skin in the regions of the head and neck. Lengthy periods of sun exposure, history of pertaining sunburns and combined lifetime sun exposure can lead to numerous forms of skin cancer in the regions of head and neck. This is particularly true for patients with fair skin and those who do not use sunscreens or another protective measure.
Other potential causes could be a history of x-ray of the head and neck, certain viral infections, ill-suited dental appliances, chronic candidiasis and bad oral care.
Sadly, head and neck cancers do not demonstrate elaborate signs and symptoms. The displayed symptoms are most often misinterpreted to be an ENT or dental problem. However, depending on the location and extent of the tumour the manifestations of the symptoms could vary.
Some of the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer are as follows:
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Oral ulcers that do not heal even after 4 weeks of treatment
- Change in voice or hoarseness in voice
- Prolonged soreness of throat
- Sore throat or a lump in the throat
- Swelling in the front of the neck or presence of neck mass
How to effectively treat head and neck cancer?
Early detection of head and neck cancer plays a major role in providing effective treatment and cure. The standard treatment protocol could include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery or a combination. Post-surgery rehabilitation is necessary as there is a possibility that the treatment could affect speech, eating, or even breathing.
Most often surgery and radiation are the primary means of treating head and neck cancer. However, due to advancement in technology, more effective treatment protocols like proton beam therapy and stereotactic radiosurgery. “Unlike in X-rays, where the rays get in and out; in proton beam therapy, the proton beam targets the cancer cells and disintegrate within the cancer cells. This leads to better-focused treatment without damage to surrounding tissues and cell,” mentions Dr D’Cruz.
Robotic technology and minimally invasive techniques make it possible to reach the tumour via the mouth, making it easier to separate the tumour from the surrounding tissue. Patients with an early-stage tumour which is limited to the lymph node on the neck can benefit from this procedure. Patients with tumours in the tonsils and base of the tongue (oropharyngeal tumours) are ideal candidates for this procedure. Laser resection surgery of the vocal cord with nerve-sparing techniques and other such procedures that have been evolved for the benefit of the patient to warrant better results.
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