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Since Colorado Access is an organization that loves acronyms, here is a new one for you:

It’s OHANCA (pronounced “oh-han-cah”)1 month!

Oral Head and Neck Cancer Awareness (OHANCA) month takes place every April and serves as a time to raise awareness for a group of cancers that accounts for 4% of all cancer in the US. An estimated 60,000 men and women are diagnosed with head and neck cancers annually.2

Cancers in the head and neck can form in the oral cavity, throat, voice box, paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity and salivary glands and the most common diagnoses occur in the mouth, throat and voice box. These cancers are more than twice as likely to occur in men and are most often diagnosed among people over the age of 50.

I knew nothing about this type of cancer until my dad was diagnosed with throat cancer at the age of 51. I was a senior in college and had just completed my last final of the fall semester when I got the call confirming his diagnosis. He had been to the dentist a few weeks prior and his dentist noticed abnormalities in his oral cancer screen. He referred him to a specialist who performed a biopsy which confirmed a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer makes up 90% of all head and neck cancers3 as these types of cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the mucosal surfaces of the head and neck2.

As one can imagine, this diagnosis was really devastating for my whole family. My dad’s treatment began with surgery to remove the tumor from his throat. We soon learned the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes so several months later he began aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. This treatment had a whole host of side effects – most of which were extremely unpleasant. Radiation of his throat required the insertion of a feeding tube as most patients who undergo radiation in this area lose their ability to swallow. One of his points of pride was that he never did – that said, the feeding tube was useful when treatment left food wholly unappetizing.

My dad underwent treatment for nearly a year before he passed away in June of 2009.

My dad’s cancer diagnosis is the main driver that led me to work in health care. During the second semester of my senior year of college, I turned down a job offer working in human resources and chose to go to graduate school where I studied organizational communication focusing on health care settings. Today, I find purpose and joy working with primary care providers and supporting them in ensuring our members have access to quality preventive care. My dad’s cancer was initially suspected at a routine dental cleaning. Had he not gone to that appointment, his prognosis would have been much worse, and he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Sweden with his mom and sister or spend nearly a year post-diagnosis doing things he loved most – being outside, working as a master gardener, visiting family on the East Coast and watching his kids hit big milestones – college graduation, high school graduation and the start of teenage years.

While his cancer was very aggressive, it’s important to note that head and neck cancers are very preventable.

Major risk factors include4:

  • Alcohol and tobacco use.
  • 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue) are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted virus.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, such as exposure to the sun or artificial UV rays like tanning beds, is a major cause of cancer on the lips.

To minimize these risks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following4:

  • Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking lowers the risk for cancer. If you need support to quit smoking or using smokeless tobacco products, the Colorado QuitLine is a free tobacco cessation program based on proven strategies that have helped more than 1.5 million people quit tobacco. Call 800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669) to get started today5.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • Talk to your doctor about HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent new infections with the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers. Vaccination is recommended only for people at certain ages.
  • Use condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly during oral sex, which may help lower the chances of giving or getting HPV.
  • Use lip balm that contains sunscreen, wear a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors, and avoid indoor tanning.
  • Visit the dentist regularly. Checkups can find head and neck cancers early when they are easier to treat.

My dad was smoker who also loved a good beer. I know these lifestyle choices were contributing factors to his cancer diagnosis. Because of this, I have spent the bulk of my professional career in roles aimed at increasing access to care and improving quality in the preventive care space. My dad inspires me everyday to make small contributions to support the most vulnerable Coloradans in getting the care they need to prevent devastating illness and potential death due to something that is preventable. As a mom of two young kids, I am constantly inspired to control what I can to minimize risk factors for head, neck and other cancers. I am diligent about dental cleanings and well exams and am immensely grateful for access and literacy in navigating the health care system to ensure my family is up to date on these visits.

While my life has been deeply impacted by head and neck cancer, my reason for writing this blog post is not only to share my story but also to highlight preventive care as an effective prevention measure for oral, head and neck cancers. At best, these cancers can be entirely prevented and when detected early, the survival rate is 80%1.

I will never forget the moment walking through the plaza on Colorado State University’s campus when my dad called to tell me he had cancer. During Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, my hope is that my story helps others to never forget the importance of staying up to date on well and dental exams. They can literally save your life.