‘Head and neck cancers are diagnosed late as symptoms do not cause discomfort’

Head and neck cancers account for 25 per cent of all solid organ cancers in India. These are generally more common in men than women. Such cancers can form in the oral cavity, throat, voice box, nasal cavity and salivary glands.

April is head and neck cancer awareness month.

What are the common symptoms of head and neck cancers?

The most common presentation of head and neck cancers is a painless non-healing ulcer in the oral cavity or change in voice which is persistent especially amongst smokers and tobacco chewers. Since these symptoms do not cause discomfort to a person, they do not approach a doctor and hence head and neck cancers are diagnosed late, often in an advanced stage.

What are the most important causative factors?

Tobacco consumption in any form i.e. smoking, gutka or pan masala chewing, brushing the teeth with tobacco paste called meisheri amongst poor and rural population are some of the causes.

How does tobacco cause cancer?

Very simply, tobacco contains harmful chemicals which induce the process of causing cancer in the human cell. Rapid multiplication of these cells causes cancer in the body.

What are the other causes of these cancers, especially oral cancers?

Ill-fitting dentures and sharp teeth causing non healing ulcers which over time turn cancerous especially in poorly controlled diabetics and in people with poor oral hygiene are other important causes of oral cancer. Low immunity, especially due to poorly-controlled diabetics and nutritional deficiencies in old people and immuno- compromised individuals can result in head and neck cancers.

How can these cancers be prevented?

Education of early symptoms i.e painless ulcers in oral cavity especially in tobacco chewers. Quit smoking. There should be judicious law enforcement.

Why is it so difficult to quit smoking?

Most people who want to quit tobacco find a strong urge to smoke or chew tobacco along with headache and irritability in the first 10 minutes in trigger situations. If one is able to control these situations then one can quit smoking or tobacco consumption.

Any tips to quit smoking?

Avoid the company of smokers. Do deep breathing exercises and listen to calming music. Undertake regular physical exercises. Fidget with a pen and chewing gum or fruit in order to avoid physical contact with cigarettes or tobacco. Above all have a strong resolve to quit tobacco.

How can law enforcement help?

Judicious law enforcement by following strict policy of ‘No sale of tobacco’ within 500 meters of school or college will be beneficial. Strict action against smoking in public places should be taken. No smoking or tobacco chewing amongst law enforcers will definitely help in curbing the menace of smoking.

Any other prevention methods?

Educating people about symptoms, signs and health hazards of smoking. TV, media advertisements and public awareness drives and campaigns regarding hazards of smoking are some of the prevention methods that can be deployed.

What are the benefits of smoking cessation?

Definite reduction in cancer and other diseases like cardiac and strokes. Reduction in cancers in family members and friends due to less incidence of ‘passive smoking’, and 100 per cent improvement in health.

Dr. Satish Rao is Consultant, Surgical Oncology, Head Neck and Breast Cancer Expert at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai