The Risk Factors of Head and Neck Cancers and How to Prevent Them

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Head and Neck

More than 1 million people worldwide are diagnosed with head and neck cancer every year. Many cases are not fatal, but the complex anatomy of the head and neck makes these cancers more dangerous. One mistake during a treatment procedure can affect multiple physiologic functions.

It’s crucial to be aware of the risk factors associated with these cancers, as well as preventive measures. Knowing these can help you lower risks and avoid complications. Here are some key things to consider:

Understanding Head and Neck Cancers

There are five major types of head and neck cancers. These are:

● Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. Laryngeal cancer affects the larynx (voice box) and the vocal cords, while hypopharyngeal cancer develops in the hypopharynx (the lower part of the throat where it meets the oesophagus). The primary symptoms of these cancers are swallowing difficulties and voice changes.

● Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer. The nasal cavity is the air-filled space inside the nose. The signs and symptoms of cancer in this part of the nose include nasal blockage, chronic sinusitis, and facial pain or swelling.

● Nasopharyngeal Cancer. Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of cancer that develops in the nasopharynx or the upper part of the throat behind the nose. Nasopharyngeal cancer symptoms include a persistent blocked nose, recurrent nosebleeds, and neck lumps may indicate nasopharyngeal cancer.

● Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Oral cancer affects the lips, tongue, gums, and the lining of the mouth. Meanwhile, oropharyngeal cancer affects the back of the throat, the base of the tongue, and tonsils. These cancers are often associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.

● Salivary Gland Cancer. Salivary gland cancer can cause lumps to grow in any or all of the six salivary glands. These lumps are usually painless but more serious salivary gland cancers may also result in facial nerve paralysis.

Head and neck cancers affect crucial body functions like breathing, swallowing, and speaking, and thus negatively impact day-to-day life. Early detection and proper treatment like head and neck surgery and radiation therapy are crucial for successful outcomes. With an early diagnosis, head and neck cancers can be cured with therapy or surgery. This makes awareness of risk factors and preventive measures even more important.

Risk Factors of Head and Neck Cancers

Tobacco Use. Cigarettes, cigars, pipes, electronic cigarettes (vapes), and smokeless tobacco products contain chemicals that increase the risk of head and neck cancers. Frequent exposure to second-hand smoke is also harmful, especially for infants and children.

Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Another major risk factor of head and neck cancer is heavy and prolonged alcohol consumption. Its impact on cancer risk increases further when combined with tobacco use.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV). There are different strains of HPV that can cause different types of cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer, in particular, is linked to HPV-16 and HPV-18. The good news is that there are now vaccines against multiple strains of HPV.
Betel Quid or Areca Nut Use. Chewing betel quid is a common practice is some countries and cultures. It poses a significant cancer risk when combined with tobacco.

Occupational and Environmental Exposures. The inhalation of substances like asbestos, formaldehyde, nickel, and aromatic amines can increase the risk of head and neck cancers. Additionally, excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays increases the risk of lip cancer.

Age, Gender, and Genetics. Men have a higher risk to develop head and neck cancers. Other contributing factors include advancing age and a family history of these cancers.

Prevention Strategies

Cancers are not 100 percent preventable. However, you can lower your risk of developing head and neck cancers by observing healthy lifestyle practices.

Stop Smoking. If you are a smoker, quit immediately to reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancers. Seek support from health professionals, family, or friends if you are having trouble stopping. There are also smoking cessation programmes that can help you ensure a lasting lifestyle change.

Minimise Alcohol Consumption

Limit alcohol intake to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. If possible, quite drinking alcohol altogether. Like quitting smoking, seeking professional help can be beneficial if you are finding it difficult to control their alcohol consumption.

Vaccinate Against HPV

HPV vaccination is not mandatory in Singapore, but highly recommended. It can be administered to children as young as 9 years old and can be effective for adults up to age 45.

Eat Right and Exercise. Living a healthy lifestyle can help you avoid many kinds of diseases, including cancer. Consume a healthy diet and always get your daily dose of exercise to stay in the pink of health.

Observe Oral Hygiene and Dental Care. Proper oral hygiene can help prevent oral cavity cancers and other oral health issues. Make sure to include flossing in your dental care routine and have a dental checkup twice a year.

Implement Workplace Safety and Protection. If you work in an environment with potential exposure to hazardous substances, adhere to safety guidelines and use protective equipment to minimize risks.

Promote Sun Protection. Avoid excessive sun exposure, especially during peak hours, and use lip balms or lipsticks with SPF to protect against lip cancer.

Early Detection

Regular health check-ups and screenings are vital for detecting head and neck cancers early. Aside from these, being aware of common symptoms like persistent sores, difficulty swallowing, unexplained weight loss, and hoarseness is crucial. If any concerning signs arise, seeking prompt medical attention can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment.

Understanding the risk factors associated with head and neck cancers and adopting preventive strategies are critical for maintaining good health. Through a more proactive approach, cancer risk factors are eliminated and mitigated, which can prevent the occurrence of these diseases.

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