By Tom Wilemon
Early diagnosis of head and neck cancer greatly increases odds of survival, but its symptoms can be subtle or mimic viral infections, so Vanderbilt Health offers a free screening annually.
This year’s screening will be Friday, April 12, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the John S. Odess Clinic for Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery in the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center at 7209 Medical Center East, South Tower. No appointment is necessary.
“Not only are we going to do a thorough exam of the mouth, throat and neck, but we are also going to teach people how to examine their own mouth and feel their own neck for symptoms,” said Sarah Rohde, MD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology. “We will also talk about awareness and risk factors, so that people can leave the screening knowing what they should be concerned about if something pops up.”
The highest risk groups for head and neck cancer are smokers and men between the ages of 45 and 75, but the cancer also strikes women and younger people. Another risk factor besides tobacco use is exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV). The sexually transmitted virus is extremely common, and most people exposed have no long-lasting effects. However, HPV infections can lead to several cancers.
A vaccine is available to protect against HPV. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine for men and women from the ages of 27 to 45. Previously, the vaccine was approved for minors and people up to the age of 26.
Symptoms of head and neck cancer include persistent or bleeding sores in the mouth or areas that don’t heal, persistent trouble swallowing, changes or issues with voice and painless neck masses.
“Every year out of the 100 people that we usually screen, we probably find three to five people who need further follow-up,” Rohde said.
The screening is a walk-in service with people examined on a first-come, first-serve basis. Parking is available in the Central Garage, and people may use the Vanderbilt Valet Service on Medical Center Drive free of charge.
The annual screening is sponsored by the Vanderbilt Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.