Lifestyle Choices Greatly Reduce Head, Neck Cancer Risks

Though we hear more frequently about other types of cancers, head and neck cancers are still something to be on your radar.

Cancers of the head and neck are labeled by their location and type. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma, says Sameep Kadakia, MD, of Premier ENT Associates, part of Premier Physician Network.

The squamous cells line the moist, mucosal surfaces — such as the inside of your mouth, throat, and nose — that are inside your head and neck.

“Cancers can occur in the oral cavity, including the tongue, jaw, mandible, and floor of the mouth,” Dr. Kadakia says. You can also get cancer in your tonsils, larynx, along the vocal cords, pharynx, esophagus, sinuses, nose, eyes, and even in your brain.

About 4 percent of all cancers in the U.S. are head and neck cancers, according to the American Cancer Society. An estimated 65,000 men and women were diagnosed with this type of cancer in 2017.

Causes and Symptoms

There isn’t a single cause of head and neck cancers, but there are risk factors connected with these cancers.

“If you look at risk factors, overwhelmingly for head and neck cancer, smoking and alcohol use are number one and number two in terms of things that increase people’s risk of getting head and neck cancer,” Dr. Kadakia says. “There’s also a synergistic effect of tobacco and alcohol, so number three is patients who use tobacco and alcohol together. They have a slightly higher risk than those who use just tobacco or just alcohol.”

Having human papillomavirus (HPV) has recently been found also to be a factor in increasing your risk of getting head and neck cancers.

HPV has played a role in the recent increase in head and neck cancer. Dr. Kadakia says many more young patients are being diagnosed with oro-pharyngeal cancers, which include tonsil cancer and cancer of the back of the tongue. And, more and more often, these cancers are linked to HPV.

The type of head or neck cancer you have will affect the type of symptoms you might have.

“Patients who have a cancer that’s beginning in their nose or their sinuses, initially they may not feel anything,” Dr. Kadakia says. “However, once the tumors become larger, they may complain of nose bleeds. They may complain of consistent nasal congestion. They may complain of nasal drainage.”

A tumor in your mouth, however, might cause:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain while chewing
  • Tongue pain
  • Weight loss

Symptoms for some head and neck cancers can seem very similar. So, once you start having symptoms or a persistent issue that’s bothering you, it’s important to visit your doctor and work to find the root cause.

Detection and Risk Reduction

Head and neck cancers are different from more common types of cancer — like breast cancer, for example — because there isn’t a specific screening to see if you have a type of head or neck cancer. Finding cancers of the head or neck oftentimes relies on routine physical exams and dental visits.

Once you’re been diagnosed with a form of head or neck cancer, your prognosis will depend on the type of cancer, how aggressive it is, and how early it was found.

“When things are detected at earlier stages, typically it’s a sign that the cancer hasn’t gotten very large, maybe it hasn’t gotten very aggressive,” Dr. Kadakia says. “What that means is that we can do more for you by being less aggressive.”

You can make lifestyle changes to help reduce your risk of getting head or neck cancers.

“One way to reduce the risk of head and neck cancer is smoking cessation and limiting alcohol intake,” Dr. Kadakia says. “As far as smoking goes, we know nowadays that smoking is related to many, many adverse things in the human body. Aside from that, we always recommend alcohol consumption in moderation.”

To learn more about head and neck cancers, talk to your doctor or health care provider or search for a provider.

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