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Heads up on head and neck cancers

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Kentucky has one of the highest incidences of head and neck cancer in the United States. Rates nationwide are increasing at less than half of a percent a year, while rates in the Commonwealth have increased by more than 2 percent since 2001.

That’s why the UK Markey Cancer Center, the UK Voice & Swallow Clinic, and the UK Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic teamed up with Kentucky CancerLink and the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance to offer free head and neck cancer screenings to the public. Head and neck cancers include tumors of the mouth, throat, nasal passages, sinuses and thyroid gland. Many are tobacco-related; however, occurrences of oropharyngeal cancer (mouth and throat cancer) caused by human papilloma virus, or HPV, are increasing.

The first Heads Up! screening event at Markey was held in April 2019 during Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. UK physicians, speech pathologists, residents, graduate students, medical students and nursing students volunteered at the event.

“If we were able to detect these cancers sooner, overall survival and quality of life for these individuals would be much better.” TAMMY WIGGINTON

Why screenings matter

Screenings like Heads Up! are important because many head and neck cancers are not found until the disease is advanced, said Tammy Wigginton, MS, CCC/SLP, BCS-S, a speech language pathologist in the Voice & Swallow Clinic.

“In the early stages, symptoms can be very mild,” said Wigginton. “If we were able to detect these cancers sooner, overall survival and quality of life for these individuals would be much better.”

Organizers set a goal of seeing 20 patients during the two-hour event, and they ended up screening 29, some of whom drove from as far as two and a half hours away. Sixteen of those 29 patients needed some type of follow-up referral.

In addition to the cancer screening, attendees received education about their cancer risk factors, free blood work to check for cholesterol and blood sugar, and a check of their weight and body mass index. Free colon cancer screening kits were given out to those who qualified.

The future of Heads Up!

Another screening event was set up for October 2019, and organizers plan to continue twice-yearly screenings.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” said Melissa Hounshell, community outreach director for the Markey Cancer Center. “But it also showed us the demand and the interest in a brand new screening like this.”

Wigginton hopes to expand the program into rural communities in Kentucky so people don’t need to travel to Lexington for screenings.

“Sometimes we tend to think people don’t want to make their health a priority, when in fact they would if they could,” said Hounshell. “This is one very important piece of the puzzle. It’s our responsibility to do it, and this is good for Kentuckians.”