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FAQ about Cancer in Head and Neck

What are cancers of the head and neck ?

Cancers which originate from mucosal surfaces inside head and neck region eg. Oral Cavity, Nose. Throat and Tongue are collectively termed as head and neck cancers. Majority of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas but head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands and thyroid gland.

Head and neck cancers are the most common among cancers in India. They were predominantly seen in elderly age group and especially in males. Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called "chewing tobacco" or "snuff") are the two most important risk factors of head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx and larynx. In Indian subcontinent smokeless tobacco in the form of pan masala, gutkha and masheri are responsible for development of gingivobuccal cancers which are typical of this population as compared to western population. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is also deemed responsible for development of oropharyngeal cancers.

The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include an ulcer in mouth or a lump in neck that does not heal difficulty in swallowing and a change or hoarseness in the voice. It is important to check with a doctor about any of these symptoms.

The medical history, clinical examination and diagnostic tests including biopsy are required to make diagnosis of these cancers. The exams and tests may vary depending on the symptoms. Imaging and clinical examination is important to stage the disease accurately and helps in planning the treatment.

Treatment for head and neck cancer can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or a combination of treatments. These Cancers are curable if detected early and treatment strategy differs with type of cancer and organ of involvement and stage at present. The patient and the doctor should consider treatment options carefully. They should discuss each type of treatment and how it affects form and function of the patient.

The goal of treatment for head and neck cancer is to control the disease, but preserving the function of the affected areas is of paramount importance and helps the patient return to normal activities as soon as possible after treatment. Rehabilitation is very important part of this process and it depends on the extent of the disease and the treatment that a patient has received.

The newer techniques in surgical methods like Endoscopic resections, Robotic surgery (TORS), Transoral Laryngeal surgery and similarly emergence of newer techniques in radiotherapy have effected a major change in treatment practices. Advent of newer chemotherapy drugs and targeted therapy have also helped in management of patients affected these cancers.

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