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Understanding Head & Neck Cancers

Head Neck Cancers

Cancers are biologically similar to each other and can start in places such as the lining of the nose, throat, mouth, skin and, rarely, the ear. Approximately 90 percent of all head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. so-called because the cancers start in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck.

It should be noted that brain cancers are different from head and neck cancers in that, while the brain is of course necessarily part of the head, the type of cancer that forms within the brain are biologically different from those that form on the head and neck. A neck and head cancer can, however, spread (metastasize) into the brain, becoming brain cancer in the process.

Most neck cancers tend to present with visible or palpable masses. They may also be painful, and some cancers have been noted to affect swallowing or even change the patient’s voice. In some cases, the patient may also start bleeding from the mouth or experience a strange numbness in the mouth.

Individuals who chew betel nuts regularly - as is the practice amongst some of the some ethnic groups including Peranakans, Myanmese, Indian and Chinese - are at a higher risk of developing mouth cancers, as are heavy drinkers of alcohol. Nose cancers on the other hand are found amongst the Chinese, particularly those of Cantonese origin, while prolonged sun exposure has been known to increase the risk of getting cancer around the skin of the head and neck regions.

Of particular note is the fact that cigarette smokers have 5 to 25 times the risk of developing head and neck cancers over that of the general population. Smoking is so detrimental to one’s health that the smoker must stop smoking for at least 20 years before his risk will begin to approach that of the general population; however, from the day that one stops smoking, one’s risk of developing head and neck cancer will immediately start to drop sharply, making it a good idea to stop smoking even if you feel that 20 years is too long to wait.

Depending on where the cancer has hit exactly, the exact treatment for neck cancers will vary. Surgery is the most common form of treatment, though chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be needed at times.

When surgery is performed, the goal is to remove the cancerous cells entirely. This can be tricky at times, such as when the cancer is near the larynx (because removing or even just damaging the larynx can result in the patient losing the ability to speak entirely), but tends to be the primary goal in most surgical procedures as it has a high rate of success.

Early-stage head and neck cancers, especially laryngeal cancers and cancers of the oral cavity, have high cure rates. However, many patients with head and neck cancers tend to develop other advanced diseases, and in many cases even if they are cured their quality of life may be significantly affected: if one develops throat cancer, for instance, one may lose the ability to swallow and eat food independently. As with almost everything, therefore, prevention is always better than cure.

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