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Throat Cancer Largely Due to Smoking And Drinking, Studies Show

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Carol Pearson

Actor Michael Douglas has become the international face of throat cancer since he announced he had the disease. The actor says his doctors give him an 80 percent chance of beating the cancer.

Michael Douglas didn't speak to reporters at the premiere of his latest film.

The actor was mute as he posed with other members of the cast. The Academy Award-winning actor is being treated for throat cancer.

More than half a million cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed each year worldwide. Most are in developing countries. They include cancers of the nose, mouth, throat and larynx or voice box.

Dr. Michael Benninger at the Cleveland Clinic describes the warning signs of throat cancer.  "A good rule of thumb is an unexplained hoarseness, particularly in a smoker, that lasts for longer than two to four weeks should be evaluated, so that's a good rule. Painful swallowing that persists should be evaluated," he said.

Symptoms of Throat Cancer

  • Abnormal (high-pitched) breathing sounds
  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness that does not get better in 1 - 2 weeks
  • Neck pain
  • Sore throat that does not get better in 1 - 2 weeks, even with antibiotics
  • Swelling or lumps in the neck
  • Unintentional weight loss

A new study from the National Cancer Institute finds that many head and neck cancers are the direct result of smoking. The study followed almost half a million people for five years.  They found that men were more likely to be diagnosed with head and neck cancers than women.  Heavy tobacco and alcohol use are the top risk factors.

Dr. Sat Parmar of University Hospital of Birmingham in Britain says heavy drinking and smoking dramatically increases the risk of getting these cancers. "If you smoke and drink heavily, your risk of getting mouth cancer is about 26 times that of a non smoker and a non drinker," he said.

Michael Douglas is getting a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, but treatment can also include surgery.

The latest technique involves robotic surgery.  Dr. Tod Huntley likes it because the surgery is performed through the throat without making an outside incision. "It doesn't involve nearly the trauma to the surrounding tissues, and for many select tumors in this area, it allows for complete removal...often without a tracheotomy (a cut or opening is made in the windpipe or trachea) and generally without a feeding tube," he said.

With robotic surgery, patients spend less time in a hospital, have a faster recovery and avoid scarring and facial deformities. To reduce the risk of getting head or neck cancers, doctors the world over advise people to stay away from smoking and heavy drinking.

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