Head and Neck Cancer: The risk factors and treatment - Make Sense Campaign
Created by
« home page
Dr. Kunjahari Medhi

Head and Neck cancer is the leading contributor to the Indian healthcare burden.

Owing to increased use of tobacco, India contributes to annually 2, 00, 000 cases of head and neck cancer of which 80, 000 are cases of oral cancer. The number is expected to double by 2030.

Even though the maximum number of cases of mouth cancer is found in the male population after the age of 55 years, there is an alarming trend skewing towards the younger population.

The major cause behind the occurrence of head and neck cancer is tobacco (both smoking and chewing with or without beetle quid i.e. paan). Alcohol is another contributing factor to head and neck cancer. People who use both are at major risk. 75% of head and neck cancer cases occur because of these two major factors. Other factors include consumption of preserved or salted food, poor oral hygiene, chemical exposure like nickel, formaldehyde, asbestoses, radiation and HPV etc.

One should look out for a lump or sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing and a change or hoarseness in the voice, a white or red patch on the gums, tongue and lining of the mouth, loose fitting of dentures, weight loss and persistent pain in the ear as these are all symptoms of head and neck cancer. All individuals should carry out a yearly physical examination of the head, neck and oropharynx conducted by their primary physician, as well as routine dental evaluation to include neck examination and inspection of the mouth and oropharynx.

Treatment of the head and neck cancer depends on the exact location of the tumour, the stage of the cancer and the person’s age and general health. Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

In the early stage of cancer when the tumour is resectable, the mainstay of the treatment is the surgery and now with advancement in technology, robotic surgery is possible with fewer side effects. With improvement in surgical techniques and skills organ preservation, preservation of functions are possible in more and more cases these days. There is tremendous advancement in radiation therapy and adequate doses of radiation can be delivered precisely to the tumour with minimal side effects and with best results. There is significant improvement in the field of systemic treatment in cancer including chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Tobacco is dangerous in all forms. In India, smokeless tobacco is the most common form of tobacco consumed. However, most of the attention is still towards prevention of smoking. And smokeless tobacco prevention has not gained much momentum. Aggressive marketing, easy availability, lack of effective intervention, lack of public awareness about its harmful effects –  all these factors have contributed to this public health challenge which warrants far greater attention and action than it has so far received.

The article is written by Dr. Kunjahari Medhi, Director, Medical Oncology, Batra Hospital, New Delhi