Watch out for the symptoms of head and neck cancer - Make Sense Campaign
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Dr. Vinayak Munirathnam

Head and neck cancers are curable if detected on time. Fortunately, these cancers produce symptoms early. Here are some of them.

• A lump in the neck that lasts for more than two weeks. Not all lumps are cancerous. But a lump in the neck can be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), or salivary glands.
• Such lumps are generally painless. Commonly, antibiotics are prescribed as an initial mode of treatment under the assumption that the lumps have been caused due to an infection. If the lump persists or continues to grow despite the use of antibiotics, further investigation is essential.

• Most cancers in the voice box cause a change in voice. If you find your voice becoming hoarse or if the change lasts for more than two weeks, you must visit an ENT.
• Cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away or may or may not be painless.
• Bleeding may occur, but often not until late. If an ulcer or swelling is accompanied by lumps in the neck, you should seek medical advice.
• Tumors in the nose, mouth, or throat can lead to blood in your saliva or phlegm. If this continues for more than a few days, you should consult a doctor.
• Cancer of the throat may make swallowing solid foods (and sometimes liquids) difficult. You may also end up throwing up the food.
• Most squamous cell cancers occur in the lower lip and ear. They might present as a sore which does not heal.
• Constant pain in or around the ear when you swallow can be a sign of infection or tumor growth in the throat.

All of these symptoms can occur even in patients who do not have cancer. But you cannot be sure about this until you see a doctor.

When detected early, most cancers in the head and neck can be cured effectively. Studies have, however, shown that a lack of awareness among people often leads to a delay in seeking medical help. Cure rates for these cancers could be greatly improved if they are detected early.

Nearly 90% of head and neck cancers are caused due to tobacco and alcohol consumption. Therefore, you must quit their usage immediately. People who use tobacco should undergo screening. In adults who do not smoke or drink, cancer of the mouth and throat can occur as a result of HPV infection. Prolonged exposure to sunlight is linked to lip cancer.

Being aware about our health is the only way we can lead a better tomorrow.

This article has been written by Dr. Vinayak Munirathnam, MBBS,MD,DM,Consultant Medical Oncologist, HCG Hospitals, Bangalore.