Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers: June 12, 2012

It may not be a common form of cancer, but head and neck cancers can have debilitating results, such as not being able to speak or swallow.  A large portion of cases are linked to specific risk factors and usually come with early warning signs.

Stan Garratt is both a cancer statistic and survivor.

“Last May he was diagnosed with early stage throat cancer on the base of his tongue, “his wife, Jessica Garratt, explains.

His disease is one that’s rarely talked about.

“I guess we have never had anybody have this kind of cancer who is a real good spokesperson for it. Because that’s usually how you get the word out,” says Dr. Phillip Andrews, an otolaryngologist on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.

Head and neck cancers include the mouth, voice box, tongue, salivary glands, nose, nasal passages and tonsils.  Together they only account for three percent of malignancies in the U.S.  But the affects can be substantial.

“He lost his windpipe and his entire tongue. They were able to rebuild it with tissue from his thigh but he’ll never able to speak again.”

Doctors would like to spread the word that head and neck cancers have strong risk factors, along with symptoms that could lead to an early diagnosis.

“Fifteen to eighteen years ago, probably 90-95 percent of my new cancer patients were smokers. And their cancers were most of the time caused by the smoking. But now about 45 percent are non-smokers and the majority of those are caused by HPV, says Dr. Andrews.

The same HPV virus linked to cervical cancer is largely responsible for head and neck cancers.  Getting the vaccine eliminates this risk factor, but many people are already exposed.  Symptoms of head and neck cancers include hoarseness lasting for more than three weeks, a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, a sore on the tongue or mouth, white or red patches in the mouth or tongue and coughing up blood.

“If you pay attention at all to what’s going on, then you’re going to pick up that you need to go see somebody and get this checked out,” says Dr. Andrews.

And speak up if you have any concerns.