Facing Cancer: Head On

Nurse examining female patients mouth

Author: Rohan R. Walvekar, MD, Mervin L. Trail Endowed Chair in Head & Neck Oncology and Director of Salivary Endoscopy Service at University Medical Center New Orleans

When most people hear the word “cancer,” it’s likely that breast, prostate and lung cancers first come to mind.

However, few people realize that head and neck cancer accounts for four percent of all cancers in the United States.

Affecting twice as many men as they do women, head and neck cancers are projected to affect nearly 65,000 people in the world this year alone, killing roughly 14,000 of those afflicted.

Oral and head/neck cancers are unique because they directly affect the organs that allow us to communicate. Often living in the oral cavity of people’s mouths, these forms of cancer can also be found in the tonsils, voice box, throat, tongue or neck – specifically in a person’s lymph nodes. They leave lasting effects on appearance, speech, the sense of smell, eating, swallowing and even breathing.

Tobacco and alcohol are the most common risk factors for these forms of cancer.

Early screening is important before it’s too late.

University Medical Center New Orleans is offering free head and neck screenings on September 22 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the UMC Conference Center Room J.

If you are unfamiliar with head and neck cancer or want to learn more about the screening process, here’s what you should know:

About Screening

  • UMC is offering free oral cancer screening to the public on September 22.
  • Screening for head and neck cancer takes 1 minute or less.
  • An experienced physician will examine you using a non-painful and effective method for detecting oral cancers. He or she will examine your oral cavity and neck to evaluate and diagnose abnormal lesions of the mouth, neck, thyroid and salivary glands.
  • Oral screenings are NOT dental screenings.
  • If you are experiencing problems with your voice box or throat, a UMC physician will happily discuss these concerns in-person at the screening and then set up an appropriate follow-up appointment with our hospital’s ENT Clinic.

Why It’s Important

  • If detected early, cancer prognosis in stages 1 and 2 is significantly better than that of later cancer stages (stages 3-4).
  • Treatment can be administered with limited consequences to function.
    • Smaller and more functional operations (surgery or radiation) are possible; recovery times are much faster.
    • For late stage tumors, multiple treatment modalities have to be included (surgery + radiation + chemotherapy). Prognosis can be poor and recovery time often takes longer.
    • In later stages, there is a higher recurrence rate, longer rehabilitation and, often, permanent impact on function. This is when the need for a permanent tracheotomy, a feeding tube or disfiguring surgery comes into play.

How to Know if You Should Get Checked

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, it is best that you get screened:

  • Ulcer or growth or discoloration in the mouth that may not have gone away with treatment
  • Neck lump or mass (suggestive of spread to the lymph nodes in the neck)
  • Pain in the ear (with no prior ear disease)
  • Difficulty swallowing or changes in voice

How to Register for your Free Screening

Walk-ins are welcome, but we encourage you to pre-register using the form here on our website.

For more information on head and neck cancer types, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, please visit the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance online.

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