21,000+ cases of head and neck cancer can be prevented

Head and Neck cancers are influenced by multiple factors, but a new study identified two common lifestyle choices that are responsible for nearly 40% of all cases.

In Australia, Head and neck cancer (HNC) is the fifth most common cancer affecting men, and the eleventh most common cancer in women. Now, a new study found that regular alcohol consumption and smoking may explain 38.5% or more than 21,000 of future HNC cases.

The research, led by Dr Maarit Laaksonen, from the University of New South Wales, stands as the first study to evaluate the future risks of head and neck cancers due to preventable factors.

About the study
The study used data from seven Australian cohorts, which included data from more than 367,000 patients, linked to national cancer and death registries. Prevalence data on head and neck cancer was based on the 2017-2018 Australian National Health Survey.

The key finding of this study was the significant contribution of alcohol and tobacco smoking to the risk of head and neck cancers.

Current smokers were found to have a 3-fold increased risk of HNC, compared to non-smokers, and affected men more often that women. Consuming two alcoholic drinks per day was associated with a 1.7-fold increase in HNC risk, whereas consuming three daily drinks led to a 1.9-fold increased risk, compared to people consuming less alcohol.

“Jointly, smoking and alcohol consumption explain almost 40% (39% exactly) of the future HNC burden. Alcohol-attributable HNC burden is triple and smoking-attributable burden double for men compared with women,” Dr Laaksonen told Medical Forum.

The study also found significant associations with other factors. For example, doing less than 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly, being under 65 years old, unmarried, with low or intermediate educational attainment or with lower socio-economic status were all factors that also influenced the risk of HNC.

About the findings
In Australia, smoking is still a significant health problem, with about 11% of people aged 14 or older smoking on a daily basis. Around 70 different cancers are associated with the chemicals found in tobacco smoke. In 2011, it was estimated that tobacco smoking was responsible for 80% of lung cancer cases and 75% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease cases. Likewise, excessive, long-term alcohol consumption is linked to multiple health conditions, including oral, throat and breast cancers, liver cirrhosis, brain damage, dementia, heart disease and stroke.

The findings of this new study send a strong message to policy makers. “Our findings support continued investment in tobacco control, especially preventing smoking uptake, particularly for the high-burden groups our study identified,” Dr Laaksonen said. “For both smoking- and alcohol-related HNC men bear most of the burden, and this gender inequality, which we also see with respect to many other cancers, should be addressed,” she added.

Now, Dr Laaksonen is working on a new analysis, investigating the factors associated with other forms of cancer. In the future, her plans are also to look beyond Australia for stronger datasets and conclusions. “In near future, I will also be combining cancer risk and burden estimates from Australian data with respective estimates from international cohort data to allow me (the additional statistical power needed) to evaluate less common cancers and population subgroups where larger amounts of data are needed for reliable conclusions,” she said.