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GBMC Greater Living Discusses the Team Approach to Head and Neck Cancer

April 8, 2019
Each year, around 63,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, which includes cancers in the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. Mary Beth Marsden talked with members of GBMC’s Milton J. Dance Jr. Head and Neck Center treatment team to learn what people should know about head and neck cancer and how the center’s experts treat it.

“When a patient is diagnosed with head and neck cancer, the best approach to care is a holistic one,” explained Dr. Ray Blanco, head and neck surgeon with GBMC Health Partners Otolaryngology. “We bring all the needed specialists and support services together to reach a diagnosis, make treatment recommendations, deliver that treatment, and help patients regain the best quality of life possible after treatment.”

Family members also play an important role. Dr. Blanco encourages patients to always bring a family member or close friend to all appointments to offer support and to take notes and ask questions. “It’s difficult for someone who is newly diagnosed or going through treatment to remember everything the doctor says, so having a support person with them is very helpful,” he said. “Our goal is to provide knowledge that allays the patient’s fear and to provide a pathway from diagnosis to life after treatment.”

Dr. Blanco noted that in the past, the risk factors associated with most head and neck cancer diagnoses were heavy alcohol use and heavy smoking. That’s changed. Today, 70% to 80% are caused by infection with the human papilloma virus (virus). “The HPV vaccine that’s now offered to young people has the potential to reduce the incidence of head and neck cancers 33% in the coming years,” Dr. Blanco said.

He shared the signs and symptoms that people should be aware of, explaining that when a symptom like a sore throat, lump in the neck, or white or red patches in the mouth persist, it’s time to be evaluated by a physician.

Mary Beth also talked with Jessica Maloney, a speech and language pathologist at the Dance Center about what steps patients can take to achieve their best quality of life after treatment. “Our goal is restoring as much function as possible and helping people adjust to their new normal,” she said. She often starts working with patients during treatment and continues working with them on swallowing and speaking issues after they complete treatment.

Dorothy Gold, the center’s oncology social work clinical specialist, was joined by past patient Tom Ellis. She explained how she helps patients facing head and neck cancer. “The diagnosis is often a shock and can be overwhelming,” Dorothy said. “We start providing support to patients and their families right away to help them on their journey through diagnosis and treatment.” Her efforts and those of the entire care and support team made a tremendous difference for Tom and his wife. “I never felt alone,” he said. “That made all the difference in the world. Dorothy made me feel like I was the only patient she was working with and provided so much support to me and my wife.”
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