Head and Neck Cancer : Causes, Symptoms And Prevention

What are Head and Neck cancers?

Head and neck cancer is a type of cancer that originates in the tissues of the head and neck, which includes the mouth, throat, nose, sinuses, and salivary glands. The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the flat, thin cells that line the inside of the mouth, nose, and throat.

What are cancers of the head and neck?

Although the exact reasons for the occurrence of head and neck cancer are not yet completely understood, certain factors can enhance the chances of developing this form of cancer. Such risk factors comprise the use of tobacco and alcohol, contracting human papillomavirus (HPV), exposure to particular chemicals, and radiation exposure.. Tobacco consumption in India is characterized by a significant proportion of individuals using combustible (such as smoking) and smokeless tobacco products. Research has found that 80 to 90% of patients diagnosed with oral cancer have used tobacco. Based on the latest data from the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, 42.4% of men, 14.2% of women, and a total of 266.8 million adults in India currently use tobacco. When alcohol consumption is combined with tobacco use in any form, the risk of developing oral cancer increases by 11 folds, according to research.

Another new research finding indicates a possible association between human papillomavirus (HPV) and certain oropharyngeal and oral cancers. HPV-16 has been identified in as many as 22% of oral cancer cases, while HPV-18 has been detected in up to 14% of such cases.

What are the symptoms?

The indications of head and neck cancer can differ depending on where the cancer is located. Some common symptoms include:

  • A lump or sore that does not heal
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Ear pain or ringing in the ears
  • Numbness or weakness in the face 

How can these cancers be prevented?

The most effective means of prevention is to decrease the usage of tobacco in any form. A comprehensive tobacco control program, which incorporates education, awareness, legislation, community participation, and tobacco cessation services targeted primarily at teenagers who initiate the habit at an early age, can prevent these types of cancers to a considerable extent.

Dietary practices are known to play a role in the development of certain types of cancer. It is crucial to take prompt action to promote the importance of a healthy diet that includes an adequate amount of vegetables and fruits. According to a recent study, the intake of vegetables, iron, zinc, copper, ascorbic acids, and beta-carotene has been linked to a lower risk of precancerous conditions. Consuming vegetables and fish on a regular basis has a protective effect, with non-consumers having twice the risk. Additionally, buttermilk and pulses were found to provide some degree of protection, although to a lesser extent

Early detection should be considered a crucial strategy, which can be achieved through the two main approaches of public education and screening. A comprehensive approach to cancer treatment is essential, which should be accessible at all Regional Cancer Centers, district hospitals, and tertiary care centers. This approach should involve multiple disciplines and specialists to ensure the best possible care for patients. This is why it's essential to meet a genetic counsellor. They are professionals who will take a detailed medical history of the individual and their family, evaluate their risk factors, and recommend appropriate genetic testing if necessary. Genetic Counselling for Head and Neck Cancer involves the evaluation, testing, and counselling of individuals who may have an increased risk of developing head and neck cancer due to inherited genetic mutations in certain genes.

DNA Onconex is a NGS based genetic test that will help determine if there is a gene associated with cancer. It's important to note that genetic counseling is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that the recommendations for genetic testing and management will vary depending on each individual's specific situation.

In India, the greatest priority for cancer control efforts should be given to addressing the burden of head and neck cancers. While many head and neck cancers can be challenging to treat, they are also highly preventable. Overall, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month plays an important role in promoting early detection, prevention, and treatment of head and neck cancer, and in improving the quality of life for those affected by this disease.