Doctors said that stopping tobacco use and adopting a healthy lifestyle can prevent almost 80 percent of head and neck cancer cases in India. A consolidated report of Bengaluru's National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research shows that head and neck cancer cases account for 30 and 10 percent of total cancers in males and females respectively between 2007 and 2011.
"Almost 80 percent of the head and neck cancers are preventable since the majority of them are tobacco induced - smoke or the smokeless forms," said Tapaswini Pradhan, senior consultant for surgical oncology at the BLK Super Speciality Hospital. "Due to increase in alcohol consumption and tobacco, there is an alarming increase in incidence of head and neck cancer cases over the past decade in developing countries like India," Pradhan added.
Fifty percent of head and neck cancers are oral cancers or mouth cancers, said A.K. Dewan, consultant and chief of head and neck surgical oncology at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute. Other major forms of head and neck cancer include lyrangial cancer (voice-box cancer), throat cancer (phyrangial cancer), paranasal sinus cancer (sinus cancer), thyroid and salivary gland cancers, Dewan explained.
To draw the world's attention to effective care and control of head and neck cancer, the International Federation of Head and Neck Oncologic Societies (IFHNOS) proposed at its fifth World Congress in New York last year that July 27 be declared World Head Neck Cancer Day. The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) also supported the move and July 27 will be observed as such from this year.
Explaining the need for a different advocacy program for this eminently preventable disease, Dewan said that the problems in head and neck cancers are very different in the sense that they affect day-to-day life in far greater way than any other type of cancer.
"Head and neck cancers affect all essential functions including speech, breathing and swallowing," Dewan said. "More importantly, in most of the cancers we do not know the reason why they are occurring but in case of head and neck cancers 80 percent of deaths are due to tobacco chewing or smoking," he said. "We also know that by cessation of tobacco chewing we can virtually prevent head and neck cancers," he emphasized.
Rakesh Dhurkhare, consultant for general and laparoscopy surgery at Gurgaon's Paras Hospitals, agreed. He said that the cancer-causing effect of tobacco goes up when it is combined with betel nut and lime. "Better oral hygiene, avoiding repetitive injury inside the mouth by sharp teeth and non-consumption of spicy food and alcohol can also help prevent these deadly cancers," Dhurkhare said. He said that India's poorer states bear the maximum burnt of head and neck cancers.
The maximum cases of head and neck cancers are reported from Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh Dhurkhare pointed out. "Particularly in Assam, about 50 percent cases of all the cancers are of the head and neck region," he said.
Pradhan said that the maximum number of tongue cancers is reported from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, followed by Goa.
Besides tobacco chewing and smoking, ill-fitting dentures, which cause wounds, and some viral infections, including one caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), can result in infections and cancers of the head and neck region, says Tushar Patil, medical oncologist at Pune's Columbia Asia Hospital. He said that good dental and oral hygiene, along with regular check-ups can help save many lives. Those with a family history of the infections should especially remain vigilant, Patil cautioned.
According to Pradhan, intake of more than 50 gm of alcohol per day increases the risk five- to six-fold in men and consumption of as low as 10-20 gm per day significantly increases the risk in females. "For people who consume both alcohol and tobacco, the risk increases in a multiplicative manner rather than in an additive manner," she pointed out.
According to Pradhan, a little attention to diet can also goes a long way in preventing the debilitating conditions. "Deficiency of Vitamin A, C, E, beta-carotene, iron, selenium and zinc can also cause head and neck cancer," Pradhan said.
High-temperature cooking which leads to loss of vitamins, especially vitamin C, should be avoided. "Fresh fruits and vegetables have a known protective effect against these cancers. Preserved meat with high content of nitrates should be avoided," Pradhan advised.