Monday, April 04, 2016
All you have to to is say “Ahhhh”
“Something just doesn’t feel right when I swallow.” That's what my old college friend kept saying. We were planning a trip to Europe with our husbands and really didn’t want any health issues to foil our plans. But Grace wisely followed up on her instincts. She repeated her complaint and her primary care physician listened, investigated her symptoms, and ordered some tests. The shocking news was that Grace had thyroid cancer.
Dr. William Culviner is a board certified ear, nose and throat specialist and surgeon in private practice with Eastern Connecticut Ear, Nose & Throat, P.C. with offices in Norwich, Willimantic and Colchester. I asked him to shed some light on the incidence of head and neck cancers. Frankly, I thought they were a fairly rare form of cancer.
Oral, head and neck cancer is a type of cancer that can be found in the mouth, including the tongue, throat, lips, voice box and salivary glands, as well as the sinuses, nasal cavity and thyroid. It is the sixth most common form of cancer in the world with over 100,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States alone.
Eighty-five percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use, and people who use both are at a higher risk for developing these cancers than alcohol or tobacco use alone. Thyroid cancers are often related to family history or exposure to radiation although they can develop in anyone. Cancer of the lip can be caused by excessive sun exposure and adults over 40 are at an increased risk.
Over the past decade there has been at least a four- to five-fold increase in the number of oropharynx cancers in the United States, related to Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). The oropharynx includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue. Notably, physicians have recently seen a significant increase in oropharyngeal cancer related to HPV in younger (college age) patients.
Many times a patient has no signs or symptoms of cancer, although some report changes in the way the tissues inside of the mouth look or feel. Others have persistent pain in the mouth or a sore that won’t go away or sometimes gets larger. Discolored patches or lumps inside the mouth, thickening of the cheek, difficulty swallowing, jaw pain, tongue numbness, bad breath and voice changes can also be associated with oral cancer.
Persistent symptoms should be evaluated by a health care professional. A painless screening examination of your head and neck should be performed during your annual physical by your primary care physician or allied health professional or during a dental cleaning. Most of the time, these symptoms are not an indication of cancer, but it’s important to have them checked out since treatment is more successful when caught early.
Fortunately, Dr. Culviner and his associates are once again providing two head and neck cancer screenings that are free and open to the community. On Thursday, April 14, screenings will be given in the Windham Hospital Family Health Center (Second Floor) at 5 Founders St., in Willimantic, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Appointments are required and can be made by calling 855-HHC-HERE or 855-442-4373. And, on April 15, screenings will be held in the Backus Hospital main lobby conference rooms from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., but you can just walk in; no appointments are needed for the event at Backus.
My friend Grace subsequently went ahead with the surgery and chemotherapy and I am happy to report she has been declared cancer-free. She missed our trip, but probably saved her life. Not surprisingly, she is a big advocate of following through on your instincts and getting screened. All you have to do is just say “Ahhhhh.”
Alice Facente is a community health education nurse for the Backus Health System. This advice should not replace the advice of your personal health care provider. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at www.healthydocs.blogspot.com or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at email@example.com.