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Head and Neck Cancers Kill More African-Americans

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By Jessica Williams-Gibson, Special to the NNPA from the Indianapolis Recorder –

Bruce Hall had everything he wanted in life. He was promoted to general manager of a Tennessee Sam's Club, and had even opened his own nightclub. Hall was healthy and happy until the day he developed a sore throat.

"I thought it wasn't a big deal,'" said Hall.

After his sore throat persisted, Hall decided to see a doctor. They gave him antibiotics but the pain only got worse. He was directed to a specialist who then did a biopsy. The test results showed that he had tonsillar cancer on the left side of his throat.

Hall had battled Hodgkin's disease in his early 20s. His physicians linked that disease to him developing tonsillar cancer.

"It was a major shock. I went from everything being OK to four weeks later I'm in the hospital getting chemotherapy," said Hall who was diagnosed in May 2010. "I started losing weight and I had to be off work. I had to change my entire life around."

Hall's persistent sore throat is a classic sign of head and neck cancer, which includes cancers of the scalp, mouth, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, thyroid gland, throat and lymph nodes in the neck. Other symptoms include changes in the voice or difficulty swallowing.

Tobacco use and alcohol (especially when combined together) are two of the major risk factors for developing head or neck cancer.

Cancers of the head and neck account for only six percent of all malignancies in the U.S. Although whites currently have the highest incidence rates of head and neck cancers, death is higher in African-Americans.

Hall went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy to shrink his tumor, and robotic surgery removed what remained of it. Part of his tongue and tissue in the back of his mouth was also removed. He then received physical therapy to relearn how to eat, swallow and talk.

It took him six months to recover. Hall attributes his healing to faith and following his doctor's instructions. Once he was strong enough, Hall moved back to his hometown of Indianapolis to be closer to his family.

Surprisingly, the human papillomavirus (HPV) has recently been found to be involved in developing some throat cancers, particularly in the tonsil or back of the tongue. This can happen even in individuals without risk factors.

"It is a communicable disease believed to be spread by oral sex. It's the same type of virus implicated in cervical cancer in women. But when it's in the mouth, the virus can affect both men and women," said Dr. Michael Moore, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the IU School of Medicine and a researcher at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.

Historically, head and neck cancer affected older men more than women, but HPV links and tobacco cessation efforts are giving way to more equitable numbers and younger patients.

Standard cancer treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy and surgery are used to treat head and neck cancer.

Some of the symptoms of head and neck cancer mirror common ailments, and Moore suggests that people pay attention to their bodies for any unusual or persistent signs. Smokers should be regularly screened for head and neck cancer, as well as other warning signs, such as lesions on the tongue or roof of the mouth can be checked by a dentist. Eighty-five percent of oral, head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use.

Today, Hall is cancer free, but uses his good health to be an advocate. This small group of cancer sufferers don't have the dollars and support like patients of other cancers, but Hall is determined to bring more awareness.

"We tend to think we have an S on our chest, especially men," said Hall. "You have to get yourself checked out. Spend the time and the money to get regular check-ups, and if you can't afford it, take advantage of free screenings."

For more information, call the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center at (317) 944-0920 or visitwww.cancer.iu.edu; the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance at 1.866.792.HNCA (4622) or visit www.headandneck.org

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