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Head and neck cancers: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers constitute abnormal growth of cells in any of the different sites in the head and neck. These sites include oral cavity, pharynx, paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, larynx and salivary glands. It may be of various types - depending upon the cells, it develops from but most of them are of squamous cell nature. Squamous cell cancers involve the flat cells of the epithelial lining of the tissues.

Head and neck cancers: Incidence, age and sex

Head and neck cancers are mainly seen in individuals of more than 50 years of age with an increased frequency in men as compared with women. Children are very seldom affected.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers: Diagnosis

The clinical features of head and neck cancer are varied and depend upon the site involved. The general features of cancer include fever, loss of appetite and weight loss. Longstanding and non-healing ulcer in the mouth or throat may be a sign of cancer in the oral cavity or the throat. Sore throat, dysphagia, ear pain or hoarseness of the voice may be encountered in cancer of the hypopharynx or larynx. Cancer of nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses usually manifest as stuffy nose, frequent or persistent sinusitis or bleeding from the nose. Any swelling in the jaw area may give rise to a suspicion of cancer of any of the salivary glands.

It is advisable to consult a specialist who would want to conduct a comprehensive physical examination to assess the cancer. Other investigations like CT MRI and PET scans and biopsy of the suspected part, will help in detecting the presence, location, grade and spread of the cancer.

Causes and prevention of head and neck cancers

The most common cause of head and neck cancers is consumption of tobacco and/or alcohol. Combined consumption of both substances usually has a cumulative affect. Chewing of betel quid also carries a high risk for such cancers. Occupational exposure to wood and nickel dust and asbestos are linked with cancers of nasopharynx, paranasal sinuses and larynx. Viruses like Human Papilloma virus and Epstein-Barr virus may also lead to cancers of oral cavity and nasopharynx respectively.

Head and neck cancers: Complications

Head and neck cancers are associated with complications like loss of voice in cases of cancer of larynx and pharynx. Such cancers also have high chances of relapse.

Head and neck cancers: Treatment

It is recommended to consult an otolaryngologist and oncologist to discuss the effective management of head and neck cancers. The treatment plan depends upon the health status of the affected individual and grade of cancer. The treatment modality constitutes surgery wherein the cancerous tissue is removed along with adjoining lymph nodes. This may be followed by radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Cessation of smoking and alcohol is needed for an effective treatment of cancer. A speech therapist may be consulted in cases of laryngeal cancer. The prognosis of cancer depends upon the age of the individual and grade of cancer.