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Specialists at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are raising awareness of a little-known cancer which is on the increase both in the UK and worldwide.

Unlike other cancers, there is worryingly low awareness of the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer among the general public.

That’s why the head and neck cancer medical team at the Trust are supporting European Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, from 18-22 September, by running an information display and answering people’s questions at Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI).

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in Europe: it’s about half as common as lung cancer, but twice as common as cervical cancer.

In Bradford, there are approx. 250 cases of head and neck cancer a year.

Big increase

David Watt, a consultant plastic surgeon at the Trust, who carries out reconstructive surgery on patients who have had tumours removed, said there had been a big increase in head and neck cancers in the last 20 years and cases are expected to rise by a third over the next 20 years.

And the effects of these cancers can be lifelong, with devastating consequences resulting in people having problems with eating, drinking, speech and changes in their physical appearance. These problems can affect a patient’s whole family.

“Head and mouth cancer is now the sixth most common type of cancer in Europe and affects mainly men over the age of 40 but is on the increase among younger men and women too,” explained David.

"If you pick up the cancer early, there is a an 80 to 90% cure rate – but in 60 to 70% of all the patients we see, the cancer is not picked up until later and that means the cure rates can be considerably lower - so being aware of the condition’s signs can be a real lifesaver.

“Head and neck cancer can present with something as simple as a mouth ulcer, a lump in the neck or development of hoarseness. If symptoms such as these don't resolve within three weeks, patients should see either their GP or dentist.”

Risks greater

The risks are greater for people who smoke and drink, and for people from Asian communities who chew tobacco known as paan, while the incidence of throat cancer is rising due to certain sub-types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Some of these HPV sub-types are typically transmitted through sexual contact. HPV infection is also a cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer.

Symptoms can include sore tongue; sore throat; mouth ulcers; difficulty swallowing; persistent hoarseness; white patches, red patches, lumps in the mouth; lumps in the neck and a blocked nose on one side.

India and Pakistan have the highest incidence of head and neck cancers, though this is lower in the UK within these communities.

Many patients present late with symptoms, so the head and neck team want to encourage anyone with symptoms they are concerned about to speak to their GP or dentist.

Although men are two to three times more likely to develop head and neck cancer, the incidence is increasing in women. And, while it is most common in people over the age of 40, there has been a recent increase in younger people developing the disease.