World Cancer Day 2021: Are Head And Neck Cancers Related To Lifestyle? Expert Clarifies

World Cancer Day: Tobacco consumption, both smoking and in chewable forms, along with alcohol, are the main causes of head and neck cancers. Find out more here.

World Cancer Day 2021: Are Head And Neck Cancers Related To Lifestyle? Expert Clarifies

World Cancer Day: Head and neck cancer can cause persistent sore throat


  • World Cancer Day: Head and neck cancer can cause hoarseness in voice
  • These symptoms can also be caused by other conditions
  • Thus it is important to check with your doctor if you get these symptoms

World Cancer Day 2021: According to the World Health Organization, India contributes to nearly 60% of head and neck cancer patients worldwide and this number is expected to double by 2030. These cancers affect men twice as much as compared to women. Head and neck cancer commonly refers to squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue, mouth, throat or voice box. It also includes cancers that arise in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, thyroid gland, and salivary glands. Oral cancers are the commonest sites involved in head and neck cancer.

World Cancer Day: How can a person know if the cancer has spread?

Most head and neck cancers can be detected through a biopsy, where a sample of the tissue is taken for closer examination once initial tests indicate abnormality in the tissue. In certain cases, the oncologist may recommend a specialised test to accurately detect and decide the best possible treatment. Post diagnosis, the patient undergoes an imaging test like a CT or MRI scan or a full body PET CT scan to determine the extent and spread of the cancer from its point of origin. When the diagnosis highlights a spread in the cancer, it is known as metastasis.

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How can it be detected and is it treatable?

The symptoms of head and neck cancers include a lump or a sore that does not heal, a persistent sore throat, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. Therefore, it is important to check with a doctor on experiencing any of these symptoms. The doctor can further recommend tests to arrive at a diagnosis. Seeking medical consultation provides an opportunity to undergo timely screening, especially for those at high risk of the disease.

What kinds of treatments are available for this disease and are all equally effective?

The treatment plan for the patient depends on several factors, including the exact location of the tumor, stage of the cancer, age and overall health. The best treatment results are achieved for patients in early stage of the disease. Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy or a combination of treatments. However, surgery for head and neck cancers can be disfiguring and often changes the patient's ability to chew, swallow, or talk.

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Are head and neck cancers related to lifestyle? What are some precautions people can take to prevent this disease?

Tobacco consumption, both smoking and in chewable forms, along with alcohol are the main causes of these cancers. People who consume both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk than people who consume only one of these. A significant and increasing proportion of oropharyngeal (tonsillar and base of tongue) cancers can be attributed to human papilloma virus (HPV). These can be prevented by adopting safe sexual practices. Patients who have been treated for head and neck cancers also have an increased chance of developing a new cancer, usually in the head, neck, esophagus, or lungs. Hence it is important to be under regular medical check-ups.


Smoking and chewing tobacco can increase the risk of head and neck cancer
Photo Credit: iStock

Ways to reduce the risk of head and neck cancer:

1. Quit smoking and use of tobacco in any form

2. Consume alcohol in moderation

3. Practice safe sex and getting vaccinated for the HPV infection as per guidelines

4. Avoid staying out in the sun for an extended period

5. Wear a protective face mask if exposed to toxic fumes and/or dust

Also, if you believe you are at risk due to past habits or environmental exposure, be sure to get screened to detect cancer before symptoms develop. The purpose is to find cancer at its earliest and most treatable stage.

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(Dr Jyoti Wadhwa: MD (AIIMS), DM (AIIMS), MAMS, Commonwealth Scholar (London, UK); Director, Department of Medical Oncology, Medanta The Medicity Hospital, Gurgaon)

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