Just because you can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just ask the more than 100,000 Americans who were diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck last year. Unfortunately, many Americans do not recognize the symptoms of these life-threatening diseases, which include cancers of the oral cavity, thyroid, larynx and pharynx. For some, by the time they are diagnosed, it’s too late.
Oral, head and neck cancers claim approximately 14,000 lives each year. However, there is hope; if diagnosed early, these cancers can be more effectively treated with fewer side effects and a greatly improved chance of survival.
The Head and Neck Surgery division of Greenville Ear, Nose and Throat Associates often sponsors free screenings in observance of the annual Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week in April. These screenings are painless and only take about 10 minutes.
Tobacco and alcohol users traditionally have been considered the populations at greatest risk for these cancers. However, oropharyngeal cancer cases are on the rise in younger adults who do not smoke, and recent research indicates this development is partly because of the increase of the human papillomavirus (HPV) virus, a cancer-causing infection that can be transmitted by oral sex. HPV-related oral cancers are more difficult to detect because these cancers usually occur on the back of the tongue or on the tonsils, providing even more reason to get screened regularly.
The signs and symptoms of oral cancer often go unnoticed. However, there are a few visible signs that require immediate attention, including the following:
• A sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal or that increases in size
• Persistent pain in your mouth
• Lumps or white or red patches inside your mouth
• Difficulty chewing or swallowing or moving your tongue
• Soreness in your throat or feeling that something is caught in your throat
• Changes in your voice
• A lump in your neck
Early diagnosis and treatment improves outcomes and chances of survival, particularly for individuals with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers.
At Greenville Health System, we have a fully integrated team dedicated to prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of patients with head and neck cances. For those cancers caught at a later stage, treatment may require various combinations of surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. The care is state-of-the-art, with eligible patients participating in advanced treatment protocols through clinical trials. Once a path of treatment is chosen, patients are supported by nurse navigators, speech pathologists, dietitians and social workers as they proceed from diagnosis to therapy through rehabilitation and ultimately to survivorship.
This was written by Christa P. Likes and Dr. Paul Davis. Likes, MSR, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist with Greenville Ear, Nose and Throat Associates-Head and Neck Surgery.