Head and neck cancer is emerging as prevalent concern in India. Know its causes, symptoms, who are at risk | Health

The incidence of cancer is on the rise globally with Head and Neck Cancer emerging as a particularly prevalent concern in India but head and neck cancers are of 2 types where 90% of the cases seen are of squamous cell cancer(SCC) while the other group is thyroid and salivary gland cancers and the treatment and management of both types are different.

Head and neck cancer is emerging as prevalent concern in India. Know its causes, symptoms, who are at risk (Image by kjpargeter on Freepik)
Head and neck cancer is emerging as prevalent concern in India. Know its causes, symptoms, who are at risk (Image by kjpargeter on Freepik)

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Anil D’Cruz, Director Oncology and Senior Consultant Surgical Oncology at Apollo Cancer Centres in Navi Mumbai, shared, “The major category which is SCC encompasses a vast region extending from just below the brain down to the collarbone, encompassing around 13 to 14 distinct sub-sites within the head and neck anatomy that are susceptible to cancerous growths.”

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According to him, one of the primary contributing factors to this alarming trend is the widespread use of tobacco in India. He said, “Statistics reveal that approximately one-third of our population aged 15 and above are either predisposed to or actively engage in tobacco consumption in various forms. More than 50% of these individuals prefer smokeless tobacco products, while 30 to 40% opt for smoking tobacco. It’s crucial to recognize that any form of tobacco usage significantly elevates the risk of developing head and neck cancer.”

Talking about who are at risk, Dr Anil D’Cruz informed, “The danger is compounded for individuals who indulge in both tobacco and alcohol consumption. The simultaneous presence of these habits dramatically increases the susceptibility to head and neck cancers. Therefore, addressing these intertwined issues of tobacco and alcohol use is paramount in combating the rising incidence of cancer in our country, particularly within the head and neck region. By raising awareness, promoting healthier lifestyle choices, and improving access to quality healthcare services, we can work towards reversing the upward trend of HNC cases and improving the overall well-being of our population.”

Bringing his expertise to the same, Dr Rajesh Mistry, Director – Centre for Cancer at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Mumbai, said, “In our country, oral cancer is a major public health issue. It ranks among the top three of all cancers in India. It accounts for 30% of all new cancer cases diagnosed every year. It is an important cause of morbidity and death from cancers. A large proportion of patients are in the younger age group which affects the economic well-being of the family and society.”

He added, “People who at high risk of developing these cancers are tobacco and alcohol addicts. Disease typically affects people who are addicted to tobacco and related products (in any form). In India, smokeless tobacco in the form of gutka, khaini and pan masala is widely consumed and is an important reason for high prevalence of oral cancer. Tobacco contains a variety of chemicals that are known to cause cancers. Poor oral hygiene and viral infections (HPV virus) are other risk factors for oral cancer. Oral sub-mucous fibrosis is a premalignant condition resulting from the use of betel nut and its products. It leads to restricted mouth opening and increases the risk of developing oral cancer.”

He revealed some of the common symptoms of oral cancer –

  • Mouth soreness that do not heal
  • Bleeding from mouth or throat
  • Toothache or loosening/falling off of tooth/teeth
  • Pain radiating to ear
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Difficulty is swallowing
  • Neck lump(s)

Dr Rajesh Mistry concluded, “Anyone with these complaints, if persistent, should consult a doctor for through evaluation. As can be seen, head-neck cancers are related to habit and hence highly preventable. Awareness about ill effects of tobacco and alcohol is extremely important. There are existing government anti-tobacco policies; however, implementation can be stricter. It is particularly important to educate children and young adult so that they avoid tobacco in any form. Also, those who are addicted to should be advised to quit tobacco as it reduces the risk of developing cancer in the future.”


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