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Head and Neck Cancer: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Head and neck cancer is a tumor that starts in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces of the head and neck (for example, those inside the mouth, throat, and voice box). Squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck are the name given to these cancers. 

Head and neck cancer treatment can also start in the salivary glands, sinuses, muscles, or nerves, but these types of cancer are less common than squamous cell carcinomas. Head and neck cancers can take various forms such as the following:

Oral Cavity: Cancer can form in the lips, the front region of the tongue, gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, hard palate, and the small area of gum behind the wisdom teeth that are all part of the oral cavity.

Pharynx: This is also known as the throat, a 5-inch-long hollow tube that begins behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. The pharynx has three major parts, which include: nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

Larynx: This is the voice box that is responsible for generating the sound that allows people to talk. The vocal cords are housed in the voice box. It also has a small piece of tissue called the epiglottis that moves to cover the voice box and keep food from entering the airways.

Head and Neck Cancer Causes

The causes of cancer are numerous and can range from a series of lifestyle choices to various other causes. The following are some of the main causes of head or neck cancer.

–       Alcohol and Tobacco Abuse:

These are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly oral cavity, hypopharynx, and voice box cancers. People who frequently use both tobacco and alcohol are more likely to develop these cancers than people who only use either tobacco or alcohol. These substances are known for causing the growth of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth and larynx.

–       Infections Caused by HPV Type 16 

This disease, also known as Human Papillomavirus, is linked to oropharyngeal cancers of the tonsils or the base of the tongue. Chronic HPV infection causes approximately three-quarters of all oropharyngeal cancers. Although HPV has been found in other types of head and neck cancer, it appears to be the only cause of cancer formation in the oropharynx. 

Few other risk factors include:

–       Exposure to Radiation: Radiation to the head and neck for noncancerous or cancerous conditions is a risk factor for salivary gland cancer.

–       Infection with Epstein-Barr Virus: Infection with Epstein-Barr virus increases the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer and salivary gland cancer.

–       Ancestry:  Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese ancestry, is associated with an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

–       Genetic Disorders: Certain genetic disorders, such as Fanconi anemia, can increase the risk of developing precancerous lesions and cancers in childhood.

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

The symptoms that are associated with head and neck cancer are noticeable and require immediate medical attention if they persist. Let us look at the different symptoms that occur in the different parts of the head and neck region.

–       Oral Cavity: Red or white patches on the gums, tongue, or the inner lining of the mouth could indicate cancer. A growth or swelling of the jaw and unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth.

–       Throat (Pharynx): Pain when swallowing, persistent pain in the neck or throat, ringing in the ears or difficulty hearing

–       Larynx: Breathing or speaking difficulties, swallowing pain, or ear pain

Head and Neck Cancer Treatment

Head and neck cancer treatment can vary depending on the severity of the disease. But the earlier you treat it, the better. Treating cancer at an early stage is always easier compared to cases wherein cancer has progressed to more severe stages. Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of treatments may be used to treat head and neck cancer. 

A patient’s treatment plan is determined by a number of factors, including the location of the tumor, the stage of cancer, and the person’s age and general health. Following the same cancer treatment hospital in Delhi, patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal tumors have a much better prognosis and a higher chance of complete cure than those with HPV-negative tumors.

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