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Head and Neck Cancer Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as cancer.

Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, smoking is a risk factor for many cancers including cancer of the lung. Exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer.

Michigan Medicine doctor Diane Harper talks about human papillomavirus or HPV. Dr. Harper is a family medicine physician scientist and the physician director of the Rogel Cancer Center’s community outreach program. She is internationally recognized as a clinical research expert in HPV associated diseases, their prevention, early detection and treatment for the prevention of cancer.

But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several risk factors, does not mean that you will get the disease. And many people who get the disease may not have had any known risk factors.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers (cancers that start in the lowest point of the throat) are often grouped together with other cancers of the mouth and throat into a group known as head and neck cancers. These cancers have many of the same risk factors, many of which are included below.

  • Tobacco and alcohol:
    Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for head and neck cancers. The risk of developing cancer in these areas is much higher in smokers than in nonsmokers. These cancers are rare in people who have never smoked. Most people with these cancers have a history of smoking or other tobacco exposure. The more you smoke, the greater the risk. Smoke from cigarettes, pipes, and cigars all increase the chance of getting these cancers. Chewing tobacco also increases the risk of mouth (oral cavity) cancer.

    People who use both tobacco and alcohol have the highest risk of all. Combining these 2 habits doesn't just add both risks together, it actually multiplies them.
  • Poor Nutrition:
    Poor nutrition may increase the risk of getting head and neck cancer. The exact reason for this is not known. Heavy drinkers often have vitamin deficiencies, which may help explain the role of alcohol in increasing risk of these cancers.
  • Human papilloma virus:
    The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of over 100 related viruses. They are called papilloma viruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma, which is more commonly known as a wart. Some types of HPV can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, or penis. HPV also seems to be a factor in some cases of throat cancer, such as cancer of the tonsils and cancers of the hypopharynx. HPV infection is very rarely a factor in laryngeal cancer.
  • Genetic syndromes:
    People with certain syndromes (such as Fanconi Anemia and Dyskeratosis Congenita) caused by inherited defects in certain genes have a very high risk of throat cancer, including cancer of the hypopharynx.
  • Workplace exposures:
    Long and intense exposures to wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals used in the metalworking, petroleum, plastics, and textile industries can also increase the risk of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.
  • Gender:
    Cancers of the head and neck are about 4 times more common in men than women. This is because the 2 main risk factors -- smoking and alcohol abuse -- are more common in men. In recent years, however, as these habits have become more common among women, their risks for these cancers have increased as well.
  • Age:
    Cancers of the head and neck usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. Over half of patients with these cancers are older than 65 when the cancers are first found.
  • Race:
    Cancers of the head and neck are more common among African Americans and whites than among Asians and Latinos.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease:
    When acid from the stomach comes up into the esophagus it is called gastroesophageal reflux disease (or GERD). GERD can cause heartburn and increase the chance of cancer of the esophagus. Studies are being done to see if it increases the risk of laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

Source: American Cancer Society: What are the risk factors for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers?.

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