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A comprehensive guide to Head and Neck Cancers

Dr. BhavikaJan 17, 2024

In India, one-third of all cancer cases are Head and Neck Cancers. This huge burden of cases means cancer awareness is the need of the hour.

The term Head and Neck Cancers includes tumours visible on the outside like on the lips or the nose and those that are deeper inside in the mouth and tongue, the upper part of the respiratory tract called the larynx, or the upper part of the digestive tract called the pharynx. Read ahead to know more about Head and Neck Cancers.




Causes of Head and Neck Cancers

The massive number of Head and Neck Cancers comes as no surprise when we understand that about one-third of India’s population consists of smokers. Here’s a list of causes of Head and Neck Cancers.

  1. Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes and chewing tobacco have both been linked to various types of Head and Neck Cancers. The government has made it mandatory for cigarette packages to carry information and images of cancer and other outcomes of smoking. Yet, India continues to be the second largest consumer of tobacco in the world.

2. Alcohol: While a lot of people know that alcohol affects the liver, few are aware that it is also one of the leading causes of Head and Neck Cancers. The more often you drink, the more likely it is that you may develop cancer.

3. Ultraviolet light exposure: Skin cancers and cancer of the lip are seen more commonly in people who mainly work outdoors especially considering the harsh summers in India.

4. Viral infections: The human papillomavirus (HPV) and the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) have been linked to various types of Head and Neck Cancers. In fact, about 70% of cancers of the upper pharynx have been linked with HPV infections.

5. Radiation treatments: If you’ve ever undergone radiation in the past, the chances of getting cancer are higher.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Different cancers can have different presentations. Here are some of the common complaints that could suggest Head and Neck Cancers.

  • The feeling of having a lump in the throat

  • Difficulty in swallowing food

  • Difficulty in breathing

  • A visible growth or ulcer which may bleed 

  • Continuous pain in the throat, sinuses, or around the eyes

  • Pain in the teeth or ears

The severity of symptoms depends upon the extent of the disease and the type of cancer. If you have any of the risk factors that are associated with cancer, it’s best to consult a doctor at the first sign of these symptoms. Other than these, sudden extreme weight loss or fatigue are commonly linked with metastatic cancers and require further workup.

Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancers

If your doctor suspects cancer based on your history and clinical examination, they may suggest some tests to confirm the diagnosis. These include:

  • X-ray or barium swallow

  • Endoscopy

  • Biopsy

  • Ultrasound

To correctly estimate the size of the tumour and its spread, doctors may also recommend:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

To check for metastasis and total tumour burden, a PET CT scan may be suggested.

Which tests the doctor suggests depends on the tumour and stage they suspect. Additionally, blood tests and urine tests are also a part of the treatment.

Treatment of Head and Neck Cancers

One of the most important points in cancer treatment is that it has to be started as soon as possible. Cancer cells divide and spread very fast. This is why doctors need to stage cancers correctly to formulate a treatment plan.

The good news is that a lot of Head and Neck Cancers can be cured completely, especially if they are caught early. Nowadays, cancer treatment involves multiple modalities and so the treatment plan typically involves multiple specialists. These include surgical and medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, plastic surgeons, etc.

The different types of treatment include:

1. Surgery 

When cancer has not spread much, removing the tumour is the preferred option. The goal is to remove the tumour entirely while preserving the normal tissue.

Your doctors may also need to remove some lymph nodes in the surrounding areas. A plastic surgeon helps in the reconstruction of the removed area to ensure a good cosmetic and functional outcome. The surgery is in itself a traumatic process. The resulting disfigurement is sometimes even more difficult to cope with. 

2. Radiation

Although a history of radiation is a risk factor to develop Head and Neck Cancers, it is still one of the most important methods of treatment. There are different types of radiation therapy.

Radiation has been linked with various side effects. A common one is tooth decay and patients are advised regular visits to the dentist to maintain oral hygiene. Radiation can also damage the thyroid gland permanently so doctors typically advise thyroid function tests after the treatment.

3. Chemotherapy

There are a lot of medications that attack cancer cells. Some of these are given orally whereas others need to be given as intravenous infusions. The medications for cancers can now be targeted toward specific genes or proteins that are involved in the growth of cancer. These targeted therapies have fewer side effects and are more effective. Medications have also been developed to boost the immune system of your body so it is able to control the growth of the cancer cells.

What can you do to prevent Head and Neck Cancers?

Here are some tips to prevent Head and Neck Cancers. 

  1. Limit your smoke intake.

  2. Limit your alcohol intake.

  3. Use a condom, even during oral sex, to prevent HPV transmission. You can also discuss taking the HPV vaccine which is widely available in India and can protect against multiple forms of cancer. The best time to take the vaccine is before you are sexually active. 

  4. Protect yourself from excessive sunlight exposure. You can use sunscreen or lip balms with an SPF of 30 or higher and a PA rating of +++ or higher to protect yourself. These details are mentioned on the cover of commercially available sunscreens. You can also use a hat or a scarf when you go out.

  5. Ensure regular checkups with your doctor and dentist. Doctors are trained to pick up cancers early. Something as simple as an annual health checkup can prove to be extremely beneficial.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to Head and Neck Cancers.


Are Cancer Support Groups important?

After the treatment of Head and Neck Cancers, rehabilitation is very important. You may need the help of a speech therapist, dietitian, etc., to get your life back on track. Having the right emotional support is extremely important at this time. This is why Cancer Support Groups are a good option for survivors.

What is Palliative Therapy?

If the cancer has already spread extensively in the body across multiple organs, doctors offer palliative care. Palliation means controlling the symptoms of cancer to improve the quality of life in patients in whom cancer cannot be treated completely. Surgery, radiation, and medications are also used as a part of palliative therapy.

Can early diagnosis help in the case of Head and Neck Cancers?

Prevention is better than cure. Now that you know what factors can increase the chance of developing Head and Neck Cancers, take the necessary precautions. With early diagnosis, many cases can be cured completely.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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