Did you know that head and neck cancer is the 7th most common type of cancer diagnosed in Australia? Last year, 5212 patients were diagnosed with some form of head and neck cancer and the estimated number of deaths were 1202 patients in Australia. Men are three times more likely than women to be diagnosed with head and neck cancer, and those over the age of 40 are at higher risk. We are using World Head and Neck Cancer Day on July 27th as a good opportunity to increase awareness about the condition amongst our patients.
What is Head and Neck Cancer?
It occurs when abnormal cells in the head and neck region grow in an uncontrolled manner. These most commonly occur on the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth but can also start in the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, tonsils and salivary glands.
The following symptoms should be investigated if they persist for more than three weeks, especially if there is more than one symptom:
- changes in the voice, such as hoarseness
- white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth
- pain or difficulty in swallowing
- bleeding in the mouth or through the nose
- a lump or sore that does not go away
- recurrent mouth ulcer or mass
- swelling under the chin or in the jaw
- numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
- blocked or chronically infected sinuses
- unexplained tooth mobility
Here are some factors that may increase your risk:
- smoking or chewing tobacco
- chewing of betel nuts
- alcohol use
- poor oral hygiene
- poor nutrition
- age (over 40yrs),
- gender (male)
- Human Papilloma virus exposure
- Epstein-Barr virus infection
- immunosuppressed patients
- radiation exposure
- UV skin exposure (for skin cancer)
- inherited conditions, family history of mouth cancers
At regular dental visits, dental practitioners do a thorough head and neck examination. At such visits, soft tissues of mouth, jaw and neck areas are examined for any changes. Your regular GP can also perform a complete head and neck examination. With any lesions that appear to be suspicious, you can be referred to a specialist for further scans and biopsy. In some cases, further tests such as endoscopy, laryngoscopy, nasoscopy or further blood tests need to be done.
Treatment and care for patients with cancer is provided by a multidisciplinary team. The treatment is dependent on the stage of the disease, location, severity of symptoms and on general health and wishes of the patient. Treatment may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and/or targeted therapy.
What you need to do
Being one of the top 10 cancers detected in Australia, it is important for people to be aware of the condition and to manage it. Around 59% of mouth cancers in Australia are caused by smoking and 31% from excess consumption of alcohol. Hence, quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption will significantly reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer.
Some head and neck cancer are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)—the same virus that causes cervical cancer. It is important that teenage boys and girls receive their HPV immunisation through the national immunisation program to protect against HPV related cancers. Cancers of the lip are usually associated with UV exposure, so it is also important to protect yourself from the sun when UV is high.
Some patients may develop symptoms without being exposed to these risk factors. If you experience any symptoms that are persistent for more than three weeks, speak to your dentist or your GP. Early detection can save lives!