Public Education

Little understood cancers

This Article Appears In Only Health Magazine, Jul/Aug 2010 Issue.

by Malaysian Society of Otorhinolaryngologists Head and Neck Surgeons

Once you pass middle age, it might be a good idea to have a more thorough check into symptoms you would have dismissed earlier as simply due to flu or lethargy.

Head and neck cancers include cancers of the nasopharyx, oral cavity, lips, nose and paranasal sinuses, larynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx, thyroid and salivary glands.

In 2006, there were 2,884 cases of head and neck cancers in Peninsular Malaysia, making it the number one cancer group apart from female breast cancer (3,525), followed by colorectal cancer (2,866) and lung (2,048).

Laryngeal, oral and pharyngeal cancers are more common in Indians, followed by Malays and the Chinese. Nasopharyngeal cancer is most common in the Chinese followed by Malays, the indigenous East Malaysians and Indians.

The most frequent head and neck cancers were:

• Nasopharyngeal cancer (981 cases);
• Thyroid cancer (891);
• Oral cancer (428);
• Laryngeal cancer (216);
• Salivary gland cancer (142);
• Pharyngeal cancer (113); and
• Sinonasal cancer (113).

In terms of gender distribution, males were 1.2 times more affected than females. Men were commonly affected with nasopharyngeal, laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers. The male:female ratios were:

• Nasopharyngeal cancer – 3.2:1;
• Thyroid cancer – 0.3:1;
• Oral cancer – 0.8:1;
• Laryngeal cancer – 5.5:1;
• Salivary gland cancer – 0.8:1;
• Pharyngeal cancer – 2.2:1; and
• Sinonasal cancer – 1.6:1.

The main risk factors that predispose humans to head and neck cancer are:

• Smoking;
• Alcohol consumption;
• Tobacco and betel nut chewing;
• Early salted fish consumption; and
• Wood dust exposure.

Once contracted, early treatment would usually give positive results – but frequent examination is needed to monitor for any recurrence.

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