Head & Neck Cancers: Risk Factors

CANCER is a dreaded word that none of us want to hear or experience. Yet we see many among our friends and family getting affected by this disease. Unfortunately, the fear of the disease often leads to fear of knowing about the disease as well. Many times information online may not be accurate and leads to further confusion. This is tragic since most cancers can be treated effectively especially if diagnosed early. 

In this article, I shall discuss one of the most common cancers in India, which is Head & Neck Cancer (HNC). 

What are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancer refers to a group of cancer affecting the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), nose, and sinus. With mouth or oral cavity, they are a variety of cancers affecting lip, tongue, cheek or buccal, palate, upper and lower jaw. These tumors are grouped together as they have a common causative factor, overlapping biological behavior, and treatment protocols. Also, these cancers are amenable for early detection and prevention. It is important not to confuse brain tumors which are managed, neurosurgeons.

Facts about head and neck cancers:

  • HNC is one of the most common cancers in India.
  • HNC is not just common in India but also the 6th most common cancer in the world. 
  • HNC is more common in men compared to women.
  • About 25-30% of all cancers in men are HNC while it's about 10% among women.
  • The single most important risk factor for cancer is TOBACCO.
  • There are an estimated 250000 new HNC patients diagnosed every year. 

Head & Neck Cancers Risk Factors

Tobacco: 90% of HNC is caused by tobacco use. Both smoking and smokeless tobacco are risk factors for HNC. In India, smokeless tobacco in form of gutka, khaini, etc along with pan and betel nut is a major risk factor.

Other Risk factors

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Submucosal fibrosis
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Second-hand smoking
  • Human papilloma virus
  • Malnutrition
  • Chronic gastroesophageal reflux

People who consume both tobacco and alcohol are at a much higher risk of developing these cancers.

Tobacco use in India

Tobacco use is related to about 8 million deaths worldwide every year, of which 1 million deaths happen in India. It is estimated that 30% of India’s population uses tobacco in smoking or smokeless form. Smokeless forms of chewing tobacco with lime, gutka, khaini, along betelnut and paan are widely prevalent in India. Although there is a decreasing trend, the average of getting addicted to tobacco remains under 18.

Secondhand smoking is getting exposed to smoke when some else is smoking in a closed environment, like hotels, offices, homes, etc. about 30% of the Indian population is exposed to secondhand smoke. This population is at risk for no fault of theirs and therefore smoking ban in the closed area should be strictly enforced.

Prevention for Head & Neck Cancers :

Tobacco smoke contains at least 80 known carcinogens like tar, aryl hydrocarbons, etc, while smokeless tobacco contains nitrosamines. Chronic use of tobacco leads to DNA damage at the cellular level which progresses to precancerous or cancers lesions. Research has shown that tobacco users have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. People who continue to use tobacco after diagnosis of cancer not only respond poorly to treatment but also are at higher risk of developing recurrence and second tumors.

After discontinuing tobacco use, the genetic changes persist for a long time. However, the risk of developing cancers gradually reduces.

What is the message:

  • Primary prevention is the best. The youngsters should stay away from tobacco and avoid the temptation of having the first cigarette. 
  • Quitting tobacco use at any stage is beneficial and should be recommended. It not only has health benefits but also economic gains.
  • Second hand smoke exposure should be strictly banned.

Book an appointment online to consult with our head & neck cancer specialist in Bangalore

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