Why do we need to know about head and neck cancer (HNC)?
The month of April is observed as the head and neck cancer awareness month. There is a steady rise in the global burden of head and neck cancers, particularly in our country it is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths. In India, around 30–40% of all cancers are HNCs.India’s global contribution of Head and Neck Cancer patients is approximately 60%
What is Head and neck cancer?
All cancers which arise from the mouth, throat, or voice box are known collectively as Head and Neck Cancers. The other lesser common sites include the thyroid and the salivary gland tumors.
What causes head and neck cancer?
Tobacco is the most common causative agent of head and neck cancers. Especially in our country where tobacco chewing is very common. The other causes include alcohol consumption, sharp irritating tooth, infections (human papillomavirus/Epstein bar virus), and nutritional deficiencies.
What are the common symptoms of head and neck cancer?
The symptoms of HNCs depend on the organ which is involved and on the extent of the spread of cancer. The common symptoms include a non-healing ulcer /sore in the mouth, sore throat/pain that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. There may be swelling or mass in the neck when cancer spreads to the lymph nodes. One should note that the symptoms overlap with many non-cancerous conditions like infections. So please do not self-diagnose yourself, but seek medical help to exclude cancer if you are suffering from any of the listed symptoms.
How are head and Neck Cancers Treated?
The treatment varies with the stage and site of the tumor and is also dictated by many patient-related factors such as age and general condition. Surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are the three modalities for the treatment of head and neck cancer
In the initial stages usually, one modality of treatment such as surgery or radiation therapy is employed whereas in advanced stages treatment is multimodality.
Surgery remains the mainstay treatment option for most oral cavity cancers (tongue, buccal mucosa, maxillary sinus, etc ) . After surgery sometimes additional treatment either by radiation or chemo-radiation is required to reduce the risk of disease recurrence.
In Oropharyngeal cancers (Tonsil, base of tongue, posterior pharyngeal wall), laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers an Organ preservation treatment in the form of radiation or chemoradiation is often preferred.
Is radiation therapy a safe modality for treatment?
Radiation is a safe and effective technique of cancer treatment. The current era of radiation therapy is targeted and precise where the innocent organs are spared from the harmful long-term effects of radiation therapy. The treatment techniques like IMRT, VMAT and IGRT empower the oncologist to deliver treatment by millimetric precision. In head and neck cancer the choice of treatment technique is of prime importance many critical/delicate organs are located around the tumor areas. The precise treatments lead to a better quality of life.
What are the advantages of newer treatment machines like HALCYON?
So far most Linear Accelerators require most patients to remain in the treatment room for 15-30 minutes. Machines like HALCYON particularly have the advantage of reducing the time the patient needs to spend in the treatment room. This reduction in time is especially helpful in head and neck cancers who are unable to lie down on treatment couch with immobilization devices. The Dual-layer offset leaf technology enables more efficient treatment. In a nutshell, such machines are a boon for head and neck cancer patients.
Dr. Kanika Sharma | Clinical Lead & Senior Consultant – Radiation Oncology | Dharamshila Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Delhi