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Home News and Update Year 2010 India Faces Dearth of Docs to Treat Head, Neck Cancers

India Faces Dearth of Docs to Treat Head, Neck Cancers

Times of India
27 April 2010
By Malathy Iyer
Mumbai, India

It’s one of India’s worst health equations. Head and neck account for one in every three cancer cases in India, but there is a dearth of specialists to treat them.

“There are a few dedicated head and neck specialists in our country, which also has the dubious distinction of having the highest incidence of cancer in those parts of the body across the world,” said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi of Tata Memorial Hospital. Head and neck cancers–accounting for 23% of cancers in men and 6% among women–comprise malignancy in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat or larynx (voice box), affecting the patient’s voice, distorting his/her face and taking away his/her ability to eat, drink or swallow.

Concurring with Chaturvedi, one of the seniormost doctors in the field, Dr Sultan Pradhan, of Prince Aly Khan Hospital said, “At any given point of time, there is a list of people waiting to be operated upon.” Worst, many patients still come in when the malignancy has already reached stage III or IV and it is difficult to treat or operate upon the cancerous parts.

Consider the case of Bandra resident Devyani Singh (name changed), who after being diagnosed with oral cancer, had to wait for a month for surgery. “In fact, she was admitted to Tata Hospital but they had to postpone the surgery. Now, we are waiting in queue for radiation,” says her husband, Deendayal.

Dr Pradhan, who was with Tata Memorial Hospital till the late 90s, said India had only three dedicated surgeons till 30 years ago. “Many medical colleges then, and even now, don’t take up head and neck cancer as a speciality,” he added.

There are a slew of reasons for this, ranging from costs to skill. “Head and neck cancers are the disease of the poor and there isn’t much money involved. Moreover, head and neck surgery is very complex and recurrence rates are high,” says Dr Chaturvedi. General surgeon Dr Arshad Ghulam Mohammed agrees, but with a difference, “There is a socio–economic angle to this dearth of dedicated specialists, but there are enough general cancer surgeons who can also help head and neck cancer patients. So, a surgeon who operates on cancer of the abdomen can also operate upon an oral cancer patient as his/her initial training encompassed all body parts.”

Dr Anil D’Cruz, who heads the head and neck cancer department of Tata Memorial Hospital, said the situation was improving than what it was two decades ago. “Even in the West, head and neck cancers account for 5% of all cancer cases. So, there is a demand in this field. Private hospitals are now realising this and adding dedicated departments,” said Dr D’Cruz. Tata Memorial Hospital is awaiting the Centre’s nod for starting a super–speciality course in the subject. “At the moment, I have applications from 10 youngsters from across the country seeking services here.”

The second week of April is observed as Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week.

A Mumbai Experiment
It’s an outreach programme to help patients as well as doctors. In 1994, alarmed by the “surge of patients” affected by head and neck cancers, Dr Sultan Pradhan launched a multi–pronged programme. “We started travelling across the country, conducting workshops to demystify the surgery. We also started a fellowship for young surgeons,” says Dr Pradhan. More importantly, his team has tied up with civic hospitals.

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