You don’t need Oprah to get free screening for head, neck cancers

by Symptom Advice on April 22, 2012

Give Oprah Winfrey the credit — or blame.

Last year, Penrose Cancer Center signed up about 80 people for its first-ever free screening for oral, head and neck cancers. In the days before the screening, Winfrey’s show featured actor and producer Michael Douglas, who discussed his battle with throat cancer and helped publicize the screening campaign that was taking place nationwide. Penrose ended up with another 70 unscheduled patients because of it.

“it was crazy-busy,” said Dr. Joel Ernster, a Colorado Springs head and neck surgeon who performed some of the screenings last year. “the show scared the bejeezus out of people.”

Oprah’s show might not be around anymore, but cases of head and neck cancer are, to the tune of about 50,000 a year in the U.S. so with or without Oprah’s help, the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance is spearheading another round of screenings nationwide the last full week of April. Penrose Cancer Center, one of only two sites in Colorado to participate, will hold its screening April 25.

Ernster said head and neck cancers are the sixth most common types of cancers in the U.S., and while their numbers might not be as high as, say, lung cancer, with more than 200,000 cases a year, the effects can be disproportionately devastating.

“you can have a mastectomy and live a relatively normal life,” Ernster said. “you can have prostate radiation. But when you start taking tongues off and jaws off, and you can’t eat again, the impact is overwhelming on people.”

Most victims of head and neck cancers are long-time smokers who also drink a lot.“the classic person smoked for 30 to 40 years and drinks heavily,” Ernster said. “But I don’t want to overemphasize that.”

Because there’s another group whose numbers are on the rise: Men in their 40s and 50s, who contracted the human papilloma virus from having oral sex as long as 25 years ago. It’s the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women, said Ernster, who conducted a study on the link between HPV and the rise of a type of throat cancer in men.

“There are papers that describe it as an epidemic,” said Ernster, whose study was published in 2007 and was one of the first to recognize the increase in oropharyngeal cancer cases in the U.S.

A smaller group of people, most of them older, also gets head and neck cancers, but the cause is unknown.

Because symptoms of head and neck cancers often go unrecognized, detection and treatment can come too late. the alliance says that 66 percent of the time, oral cancers will be found as late-stage three and four diseases. about 12,000 people a year die from the cancers, and thousands more lose tongues, jaws and other parts of their face and neck. It’s why experts recommend people become familiar with symptoms and get screened.

The screenings last about 10 to 15 minutes, with doctors examining the mouth, neck, nose and maybe ears.

“It’s nothing fancy,” Ernster said.

But you could, literally, save face — and your life.

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