Global awareness increases free cancer screenings


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Physicians across the globe were saying "open wide" for Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week this week.

The event is an effort to raise awareness of the probability of cancer through free screenings, walk-a-thons, banquets, and research conferences.

Locally and nationwide, the general public and health officials are doing more to get tested.

This year 320 events were sponsored throughout the world in such places as Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Iowa City — where University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics volunteers set up a screening station for 55 Iowa City residents.

"We're trying to raise awareness of the consequences of smoking and general awareness of cancer," said Kristi Chang, a UIHC head and neck oncologist.

UIHC has been leading the event for the past 10 years, providing half-day screenings to the Iowa City community.

At UIHC, about two to four people per year at the free screenings are identified with some level of concern for oral, head, or neck cancer. A majority of those screened are referred to their primary care doctors for a follow up. Chang said most patients have legitimate concerns that may or may not turn out to be cancer.

A screening is like a basic physical, where a doctor checks for abnormalities in the head and neck area. Physicians look for a number of signs of cancer such as sores, lesions, lumps, and difficulty swallowing. A majority of patients at the screenings are between ages 60 and 70. Yet UIHC doctors see a wide age range, from 30 to 80 years.

Rodrigo Bayon, a UIHC doctor, said despite the low numbers of high-risk results at free screenings, physicians often provide direction for better care.

"Often times we don't see patients until they've been through the frontline of dentists and oral surgeons," he said. "We're directing this screening at people who don't realize they have symptoms."

Bayon said if the symptoms are ignored they may develop into a dangerous tumor.

"People often have cold sores or ulcers that don't go away, and they don't realize that if left alone, this may turn into cancer," Bayon said.

According to statistics, 85 percent of oral, head, and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use.

And although tonsil and tongue cancers are some of the least common cancers seen by physicians, Bayon said they are becoming more common in patients who do not smoke or drink.

People with no risk factors are reporting cancer symptoms more frequently. Bayon said this may be caused by the Human Pavalova Virus — another target of the screenings. According to statistics, HPV may be linked to over half of tonsil cancers.

Yet the organization has seen an increase of patients in past years. Only 7,000 patients signed up for free screenings in 2010, compared with 12,000 screened globally last year. Of those patients screened, more than 300 were referred due to suspected symptoms — and over 2,000 lives were possibly saved.

OHANCAW contributes this increase to better publicity.

"Patients are very receptive," said John Hellstein, oral pathologist and head of the American Dental Association Council on Scientific Affairs Board. "They want to know that we're giving them a full and thorough exam and getting all the information we can."

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