Wiregrass sees high numbers of head and neck cancer, radiation oncologist breaks down risk factors

About 54,000 Americans will most likely get head and neck cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society's 2023 estimates.
Published: Apr. 21, 2023 at 2:57 PM CDT
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DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) - The American Cancer Society estimates about 54,540 people in the U.S. will most likely get head and neck cancer this year.

Those alarming statistics are why during the month of April physicians are bringing awareness of the health risks these cancers can cause.

Dr. Hejal Patel is a radiation oncologist at GenesisCare and he said this cancer can develop in any of the head and neck organs.

“Which would encompass oral tongue, mouth, larynx and the entire head and neck distribution,” Dr. Patel said.

He emphasizes this disease does not seem to have any discrimination when it comes to age. The majority of cases he sees are people 60 years old or older, but he adds they are seeing more younger cases every day.

“We see an exceptionally high number of head and neck cancers in this Wiregrass area and in Alabama in general,” Dr. Patel said.

Dr. Patel said this is concerning.

There are various early warning signs of head and neck cancer. Some of the signs GenesisCare reports include difficulty swallowing, jaw swelling, mouth sores and patchy red spots in the mouth that aren’t healing.

“If something is not right, if something doesn’t feel right, something is persisting longer than a few days go to your regular doctor,” Dr. Patel said. “Go to a doctor and alert them of this so we can figure out what it is.”

Dr. Patel said the most common risk factors are using tobacco and alcohol products.

“80 percent of head and neck cancers are associated with those two culprits,” Dr. Patel said.

However, there are other factors to keep in mind like UV light exposure.

“20 percent of head and neck cancers are in those who have not smoked or consumed alcohol,” Dr. Patel said.

The CDC reports a large number of head and neck cancer cases are linked to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which is often associated with Cervical Cancer.

Dr. Patel encourages people to get the HPV vaccine at a physician or pediatric office.

“The vaccination we are providing in our younger age group will hopefully reduce head neck cancers in the future,” Dr. Patel said.

Another way Dr. Patel said can lower your risk of diagnosis is to cut out habits that are major risk factors.

“The first thing is to consider stop smoking, stop using chewing tobacco products,” Dr. Patel said.

“…obviously watch your alcohol intake would be an appropriate measure.”

He adds it’s also important to have a healthy diet and consistent checkups at the dentist.

“You would be surprised how many times a dentist does a check and finds an oral cavity or an oral pharynx cancer and sends it to further workup,” Dr. Patel said.

Dr. Patel said there are effective treatment options, but stresses that the earlier they can catch a head and neck cancer diagnosis, the better.

Click here learn how to get a screening for head and neck cancer.

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