Different types of cancers affect mouth, mouth floor, palate, tongue, cheeks, gums, lips; larynx, throat or pharynx – hypo pharynx, nasopharynx and oropharynx; salivary glands, parathyroid and thyroid glands; paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity; neck – skin of the head and neck, skull; eyes, ear and temporal bone. All these types of cancers that occur in and around head and neck are termed as Head and Neck Cancers.
Majority of the head and neck cancers are squamous cells carcinomas as they develop in the moist mucosal lining inside the mouth, nose and throat. Head and neck cancers are further categorized as oral cancers, naso-pharyngeal cancers, cancers of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses and salivary gland cancers.
Head and Neck Cancer Facts
The mortality rate associated with head and neck cancers is quite high as majority of the cancers are detected in the advanced stages.
Many patients ignore the symptoms assuming them to be due to other causes.
Sometimes the symptoms of oral cancer resemble similar to the symptoms associated with common cold and flu.
Many people ignore the manifestation of white or red patches in the mouth assuming them to be common sores or mouth ulcers.
The two major preventable risk factors for head and neck cancers are excessive tobacco usage including chewing and smoking and alcohol consumption.
Human papilloma virus has become one of the risk factors for head and neck cancer.
In the initial stages of cancer, patients may experience subtle symptoms or mild symptoms.
Even after successful treatment, the risk of recurrence is quite high. Therefore, prompt follow up is mandatory.
These warning signs often go unnoticed
Many youngsters and adults who are at risk due to their lifestyle look seemingly healthy and therefore tend to ignore early warning sings such as sores or white or red patches in the mouth. In reality, those may not be mouth ulcers, but could be a real danger that has come forth as an early warning sign, which must be taken into notice – or else it could invite a potential risk, which might prove life threatening. If anyone who chew tobacco or tobacco-based products notices such sores, they must seek immediate medical help or their life would be at stake.
The other warning signs include throat pain, persistent sore throat; nasal congestion, blockage or obstruction – which may be persistent; Jaw pain or ear pain; difficulty chewing, swallowing, moving tongue or jaw; pain in the mouth; mass, bump, lump in the neck and head area – with or without pain; change in voice or hoarse voice; swelling or sore that does not go away; bad odour or foul smell from the mouth (which is not related to oral hygiene); breathing difficulty; unusual nasal drainage; frequent nose bleeds; difficulty in sight; numbness or weakness of a body part; fatigue; unexplained weight loss; loosening of teeth; blood streaks in the mucus – phlegm or saliva from the mouth.
When a person visits a head and neck surgeon, after noticing the typical signs and symptoms, the surgeon performs physical examination based on the signs and symptoms – look for lumps in the neck, throat, cheek and arm pits. The doctor, to have a clear view of mouth, throat and nose, performs endoscopy. In addition to biopsy (fine needle aspiration), CT or PET-CT scan and ultrasound scan may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis.
What is the Treatment?
Early detection means better prognosis and effective treatment. Majority of the head and neck cancers can be effectively treated when they are detected early. The goal of treatment is not only to completely remove cancer, but also to ensure that the structural and functional aspects of the surrounding organs, cells, tissues, nerves and muscles are intact. The first line treatment is surgery. However, apart from surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or targeted therapy or a combination of these therapies can be a part of the treatment plan. The head and neck surgeon takes into consideration several factors, such as age of the patient, stage of the cancer, location and extent of the cancer and overall health status of the patient.