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How to Self-Check for Head and Neck Cancer



June 1, 2020
Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the importance of colonoscopies may be common knowledge, but Oral and Maxillofacial Pathologist James Sciubba, DMD, Ph.D., a consultant with the Milton J. Dance, Jr. Head and Neck Center at GBMC, says the prevalence of head and neck cancer deserves some attention as well.
It's the sixth most common cancer of all. It's by no means a rare finding
In fact, experts estimate that more than 65,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer this year. They also estimate that about 14,500 people will die from this type of cancer. Early detection is key to successfully treating cancers of the head and neck. Dr. Sciubba recommends looking in the mirror weekly for any noticeable changes to the inside of your mouth. He recommends using a penlight or flashlight to help look at the inside of your cheeks and lips, the top of your tongue, and most importantly, along the sides and underneath your tongue.

Sciubba says oropharyngeal cancer can be more difficult to detect but recommends feeling along the sides of your neck, from behind your ear down to your collarbone, for any lumps or bumps. Other symptoms to watch out for include a change in your voice, an earache that won't go away, or difficulty swallowing. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, Dr. Sciubba recommends reaching out to your dental provider or primary care doctor, who can perform a thorough examination and then refer you to a specialist if a follow-up appointment is necessary.

One of the major risk factors for head and neck cancers is the use of alcohol and tobacco.

"I don't mean a glass of wine a day. It's heavy drinking and heavy smoking over several years," Dr. Sciubba says. "There's a cumulative risk that you accrue over years of significant amounts of alcohol and tobacco use."

Another risk factor is the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV), especially type 16. Oropharyngeal cancer associated with HPV infection has increased dramatically over the past 20 years in patients without traditional risk factors.

The quickest way to lower your risk of these type of cancers is to stop smoking. Studies have shown that when people stop smoking cigarettes, their risk of oral, pharyngeal, and laryngeal cancer decreases by 50% within five to nine years. This is especially important for head and neck cancer survivors, Dr. Sciubba says.

"People who have had mouth cancer, who continue to smoke, are at a greater risk for a secondary primary cancer. They must continue to be followed very carefully after treatment."

Most importantly, Dr. Sciubba urges anyone with concerns to schedule an appointment with their primary care provider or their dentist as soon as possible.

"A dental examination in a chair with a good light and a well-informed dentist should easily pick up oral cavity and mouth cancers. Early detection makes all the difference in the world in terms of survival."
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