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Dangers of head and neck cancers not well known by public, study finds

June 09, 2014

By Jean Williams

A study published online June 5 by JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery indicates that American adults may know little about head and neck cancers, including common symptoms and risk factors such as tobacco and human papillomavirus infection.

HNC is responsible for substantial morbidity, mortality and cost in the United States, according to the study, "Public Awareness of Head and Neck Cancers: a Cross-Sectional Survey." Public knowledge of head and neck cancers is a determinant of early detection, lifestyle risk factors associated with these cancers, disease burden and outcomes.

The study sought to assess awareness and knowledge of head and neck cancers among U.S. adults, and information to that end came via an online survey of 2,126 randomly selected U.S. adults, polled in 2013. It measured subjective and objective assessment of personal knowledge of HNC, including symptoms, risk factors and association with the human papillomavirus.

Self-reported knowledge of HNC was low with 66 percent of respondents reporting that they were "not very" or "not at all" knowledgeable. As for risk factors, 54.5 percent of respondents identified smoking and 32.7 of respondents identified chewing or spitting tobacco, but just 0.8 percent of respondents identified HPV infection as a risk factor for mouth and throat cancer. Respondents also knew little about symptoms and body sites comprising HNC, with 21 percent even incorrectly identifying brain cancer as a head and neck cancer.

Study authors concluded that strategies to improve public awareness and knowledge of signs, symptoms, and risk factors may decrease the disease burden of HNC and are important topics for future research.

The full study is available to JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery subscribers. An abstract is available online

The ADA has resources on oral cancers for both the patient and the clinician.

For the patient:

•  The ADA patient education brochure Get the Facts About Mouth and Throat Cancer (W151) can help dentists address head and neck cancer awareness. See a related story on the ADA brochure by clicking link to right.

•  Dentists also may point patients to resources on MouthHealthy.org, the ADA's consumer education website, and share this 2010 JADA article.

For the clinician:

•  ada.ebd.org. See "Screening for Oral Cancer."

• ADA.org, under Member Center: ADA Library and Archives, Oral Health Topics