Of the 10 lakh cases of cancer detected in India every year, around 2 lakh are cancers of the ‘head and neck’ category.
‘Head and Neck’ cancers are tumors in and around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, or mouth. These develop when healthy cells in these regions change and grow out of control forming a mass called tumor. They are mostly squamous cell carcinomas, which originate from flat squamous cells that form the surface area of tissue inside head and neck. In India, oral squamous cell carcinoma is the most common cancer in men and the fourth most common cancer in women. Cancers of the lip and oral cavity are the second most common cancer in India.
Head and neck cancer is caused by tobacco use, use of both smoke & smokeless tobacco, and over-consumption of alcohol. Other risk factors include infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) and overexposure to sun-rays.
The symptoms of head and neck cancer include red or white patches on the gums, breathing difficulties, pain while swallowing, lump or sore that doesn’t heal, unexplained change-invoice, fatigue, unexplained weight-loss or pain in the face. Tests such as biopsy, endoscopy, X-ray, CT-scan, Ultrasound, and PET-CT scan are recommended to diagnose head-and-neck cancer.
The treatment options include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and a combination of these and depend on the tumor location, cancer stage, person’s age, and general health condition.
Patients with localized(Stage I and II) head and neck carcinomas are generally managed with either surgery or radiation therapy alone. However, a combined modality treatment may be required in cases with high-risk features. In more advanced stages (III, IV A & IV B), the disease is typically managed with both radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Palliative systemic therapy is appropriate for most patients with locally recurrent and metastatic disease.
Newer therapies like Immunotherapy and targeted therapy can be employed that may use body’s own mechanisms to fight cancer. Immunotherapy or targeted therapy is different from traditional chemotherapy in the sense that it works by targeting the cancer-specific genes, proteins, or tissues limiting damage to the healthy cells. It works if the tumor has the necessary target proteins to attack. Immunotherapy boosts the body’s natural defences to fight cancer.
In general, family members and friends often play an important role in taking care of a person with ‘head and neck’ cancer.
Dr. Praveena Voonna,
Consultant Medical Oncologist,
Mahatma Gandhi Cancer Hospital and Research Institute, Visakhapatnam.