Am I At Risk for Head and Neck Cancer?
Tobacco use is the single most important risk factor for head and neck cancer.
Certain factors can make one person more likely to get head and neck cancer than another person. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get head and neck cancer. In fact, you can have many risk factors and still not develop the disease. On the other hand, you can have no risk factors and get head and neck cancer. If you agree with any of these statements, you're at increased risk:
I smoke or use tobacco.
Tobacco use is the single most important risk factor for head and neck cancer. People who smoke or chew tobacco, dip snuff, or smoke pipes have a much higher chance of getting head and neck cancer than people who do not use tobacco. Smokeless tobacco greatly increases the risk. The risk is related to the intensity — How many cigarettes, cigars, or pipes you smoke. And the risk is also related to the duration — How many years you have smoked. By quitting smoking, you reduce not only your risk for head and neck cancer, but also your risk for other cancers such as lung cancer, bladder cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Quitting smoking also reduces the risk for serious heart or lung diseases. Smoking marijuana may also increase your risk of head and neck cancer.
I have more than two alcoholic drinks a day.
People who drink more than two alcoholic drinks a day have a higher chance of getting head and neck cancer. People who drink alcohol and use tobacco have the greatest chance of getting head and neck cancer.
I am a man.
Men are more likely to get head and neck cancers than women. Part of the reason for this may be that men are more likely to smoke or drink heavily.
I eat an unhealthy diet.
Diets low in certain vitamins may raise your risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer.
I have had poor oral hygiene, such as gingivitis (gum disease), or I have poorly fitting dentures.
Dentures that don't fit well can cause alcohol and tobacco particles to get stuck and irritate the gums and cheeks, which may increase risk.
I have been infected with certain viruses.
Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) increases your risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer. Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus, the virus that causes mononucleosis, plays a role in causing nasopharyngeal cancer.
I have a suppressed immune system.
People whose immune system is suppressed, such as people who have had organ transplants, are at higher risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer.
Knowing the factors that make you more at risk for head and neck cancer is a step in the right direction. But what can you do after you learn the risk factors? You can figure out which ones can be controlled. The most important step is to quit smoking or stop using smokeless tobacco. Excessive use of alcohol is also harmful and should be avoided as well. If you believe you are at risk for head and neck cancer, you can talk about this with your doctor.