What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer is a group of cancer that starts in or near the throat, sinuses, mouth, voice box or mouth. Usually, it begins in the cells that line the surfaces of these body parts called the squamous cells.

There are five types of head and neck cancer:

  • Oral cavity: This type of cancer affects the lips and inside of your mouth.
  • Pharynx: This is the cancer of the throat. It includes the tonsils, back of the throat, the back of the tongue and the soft palate.
  • Larynx: This is the voice box. It holds the vocal cords and epiglottis, the little piece of flesh that hangs in the back of the throat.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses: Nasal cavity is the space inside the nose. Paranasal sinuses are small spaces in the bones of the face around the nose.
  • Salivary glands: Salivary glands make the saliva. They are located near the jaw bone.

How Common is Head and Neck Cancer?

There are more than 1 million cases recorded every year in India, making it the most common type of cancer. According to a report published on NCBI, head and neck cancer constitutes approximately one-third of all cancer cases in the country. Another report published by the International Journal of head and neck surgery suggests that 57.5% of the global burden of head and neck cancers is shared by Asia and especially India.

What are the Causes and Risks Factors of Head and Neck Cancer?

The following are the causes and risk factors of Head and Neck cancer:

  • Smoking and alcohol consumption
  • Eating very spicy foods
  • HPV virus
  • Being older than 40
  • Being a man
  • Not getting enough Vitamin A and B
  • Smoking pot or eating or chewing tobacco with or without slaked lime
  • Having a weak immune system
  • Epstein-Barr virus, the virus that causes mononucleosis (mono)
  • Acid reflux
  • Not taking care of your mouth and teeth (unhygienic or bad oral health)
  • Breathing in asbestos, wood dust or other chemicals
  • A sharp tooth causing frequent ulcers in your mouth and tongue

What are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer?

All five types show different symptoms:

  1. Oral cavity:
  • Red or white patches in your mouth, including your gums and tongue
  • Swelling in your jaw, including swelling that makes false teeth fit badly
  • Bleeding or pain in your mouth; painless ulcers or swelling or spontaneous and painless fall of tooth
  1. Pharynx:
  • Neck or throat pain doesn’t recede
  • Trouble breathing or talking
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Trouble hearing
  • Earaches, pain or ringing in your ears that keeps coming back
  • Unexplained and painless swelling in your neck region
  1. Larynx:
  • Painful swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Changes in voice; voice becomes hoarse
  1. Nasal cavity and Paranasal sinuses:
  • Nosebleeds
  • Headaches
  • Problem with false teeth not fitting anymore
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • Blocked sinuses that don’t clear
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Unexplained and painless swelling in the neck region
  1. Salivary glands:
  • Swelling under the chin or jaw
  • Pain in the neck or face that doesn’t subside
  • Paralyzed facial muscles
  • Swelling around the jaw bone or in front of the earlobes which is sudden and painless

How is Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of head and neck cancer, the doctors may run the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • HPV test
  • Endoscopy: A doctor uses a thin device with a camera at the end which goes through the nose and down the throat
  • Biopsy: Where the doctor takes a small tissue from the affected area to look for cancer cells if any
  • X-rays and CT scans for imaging and staging of cancer

How is Head and Neck Cancer Treated?

The treatment plan depends on a number of factors, including the location and stage of the tumor. Treatment for head and neck cancer includes chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Surgery is the main step of management followed by chemo and radiation. These treatments are often given in conjunction of one another. Palliative treatment is given to people in the later stages of cancer to help them manage pain and other symptoms of cancer rather than the disease itself.

Also Read: 5 Alternative Ways to Reduce the Side-effects of Chemotherapy

What are the Complications of Head and Neck Cancer?

If not diagnosed and treated on time, head and neck cancer can spread to the adjacent organs and create further complications. It can interfere in the functioning of the organs and cause severe issues.

What are the Lifestyle Changes Needed to Manage Head and Neck Cancer?

The following lifestyle changes should be incorporated to manage head and neck cancer:

  • Quit smoking and alcohol consumption as they contribute to cancer in the long run
  • Quit chewing tobacco and guthka as it has a direct relation with oral cancer
  • Exercise regularly to build immunity
  • Eat a diet rich in Vitamin A, B and C
  • Maintain proper oral hygiene
  • Eat less spicy food
  • If there’s a sharp tooth, it should be extracted and taken care of

Also Read: The Importance of Positivity during Cancer

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