Home / ACCCBuzz Blog / Full Story

Preventing Head and Neck Cancers: The Importance of Oral Health Screenings

April 5, 2024
Lightbulb Idea_ACCCBuzz_Square

In 2023, approximately 66,920 people were diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the United States. Another 54,540 were diagnosed with an oral or oropharyngeal cancer. Highlighting these figures is important this month, as April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. Of perhaps greater significance, is a conversation on how to reduce the incidence rate of these diseases.

An analysis of the diagnosis landscape for head and neck cancers reveals that routine dental care significantly increases their rate of detection at an earlier stage. This relatively brief procedure involves an oral health professional (eg, dentists, dental hygienists, or other trained health professional) inspecting a person’s lips, tongue, teeth, gums, inside of the cheeks, roof of the mouth, and throat for any lumps or abnormalities. If anything of concern is found, the health professional recommends further examination.

Receiving routine dental care is especially important for high-risk populations (eg, people who regularly drink alcohol, use tobacco products, or have done so in the past). Doing so has been shown to improve survival rates, overall health, and leads to lower health care costs. Unfortunately, disparities in access and affordability to comprehensive oral health care still exist.

Studies show that populations most affected include those living in poverty or in an underserved rural area, minority groups (eg, Asian, Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander), adults with disabilities, adults ages 65 and above, underinsured or uninsured individuals, and adults experiencing homelessness. Left untreated, oral health issues such as dental caries, periodontal diseases, tooth loss, and oral cancers are more likely to occur.

Understanding these disparities, the Association of Cancer Care Centers (ACCC) in collaboration with the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), and with support of EMD Serono, has implemented an educational initiative titled, Multidisciplinary Approaches to Head and Neck Cancer Care, to improve care delivery for patients diagnosed with head and neck cancers. The yearlong education and research initiative aims to assess the current state of head and neck cancer care in the US and create actionable recommendations to address challenges to accessing comprehensive cancer care.

To progress the goals of this initiative, ACCCBuzz spoke with Vickie Yattaw, RN, OCN, oncology education and support services manager at the C.R. Wood Cancer Center in Glen Falls, New York, whose center recently hosted THUNDER HOST STICK IT TO CANCER EVENT, their annual oral health screening event.

ACCCBuzz: Can you tell us about the head and neck cancer screening event your Center hosted?

Yattaw: The C.R. Wood Cancer Center is a Commission on Cancer accredited center. Part of our directive is to hold an annual community screening event. In the past, we have held an annual skin cancer screening. Five years ago, we developed a prehab program for oral patients with cancer. We still have that program today. Part of the program was to get dental clearance prior to treatment, and we found that 75% of those diagnosed either had no dental insurance or had not seen a dentist recently. This led to delays in starting treatment. We partnered with local dental providers to fast track these patients into their practice and to assist with financial concerns. 

ACCCBuzz: Can you tell us more about why you partnered with the New York State (NYS) Dental Foundation for this initiative?

Yattaw: Oral health professionals are needed to provide the screening. One screening event typically has 9 providers. This partnership creates a direct link to credentialed providers who could screen and offer tools and resources. We reached out to the NYS Dental Foundation after we saw a similar screening event at a NY [New York] Mets game. We thought bringing a screening to a local event would garner a better turnout. It worked well for us the first year, so we wanted to do it again.

ACCCBuzz: Is there a target demographic for this screening?

Yattaw: Our screening event is open to the public. We held it during a local hockey game on a Friday evening. That’s when we found the largest participation. We have the potential to screen 3,000 to 4,000 people this way. 

Last year we screened approximately 150 people. Out of the 150 people, 4 needed follow-up care, and 2 of those had non-invasive forms of cancer that required surgery. If these people had dental health insurance, they could have caught the problem before it became worse.

ACCCBuzz: How will you ensure follow-up care for patients?

Yattaw: Each person screened has a form that follows them. After the screening event, each form is reviewed to see if any abnormalities were identified, or if there was a request for follow-up care. Someone from the Center will contact patients to schedule services, determine insurance status, and if they have cancer, can assist with insurance and co-pays. Our dental providers provide care at a discounted rate or can set up a payment plan.

ACCCBuzz: Could you explain the importance of early detection for head and neck cancers?

Yattaw: Early diagnosis is important because the earlier a disease is found, the easier it is to treat. The focus of our screenings is to find diseases as early as possible, so patients have the best chance for recovery. Treatment ranges from surgical care, radiation, or a course of radiation and chemotherapy for more advanced diseases.  

ACCCBuzz: What specific screening methods or tests were offered at the event?

Yattaw: It was a visual screening that takes about 2 to 3 minutes. It includes looking in a person’s mouth and throat to look for any abnormalities. As I said earlier, an in-take form is created for each person screened so we can inform them of any possible disease and follow-up care needs.  

ACCCBuzz: Will there be any resources on head and neck cancer available if someone wants to learn more after attending one of these events?

Yattaw: Yes, a table of resources created by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance will be available explaining more about the importance of participating in a screening, vaccines for human papilloma virus (HPV), and other resources.

ACCCBuzz: What advice would you give to other cancer sites that are thinking of hosting their own screening event?

Yattaw: Define a champion in the dental community, ours was the Dental Foundation. Find a venue, somewhere that already has a draw for a large population, and partner.  A cancer-related event is ideal because they are already thinking of it when there.

ACCCBuzz: How did individuals interested in attending the screening event register?

Yattaw: They just came out to the hockey game. Came in and watched the game, no pre-registration is required.

Looking Forward

The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance has made it easy for cancer centers to host their own head and neck screening event with curated resources including a “How To Host a Screening Guide” and customizable flyer for screening promotion.

In a CANCER BUZZ podcast (Episode 149) released earlier this week in connection with Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, Alessandro Villa, DDS, PhD, MPH, chief of Oral Medicine, Oral Oncology, and Dentistry at Baptist Health South Florida’s Miami Cancer Institute, emphasized the proactive role dentists can play in the early identification of cancer and shares how a cross-disciplinary cancer care team and patient education work in tandem to better manage complications from head and neck treatment.

To find more tools and resources related to Head and Neck Cancer Care, visit the Multidisciplinary Approaches to Head and Neck Cancer Care webpage.

ACCC’s Multidisciplinary Approaches to Head and Neck Cancer Care education program is made possible with support by EMD Serono.

We welcome you to share our blog content. We want to connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original post and refrain from editing the text. Any questions? Email CJ Ike, Content Manager.

To receive a weekly digest of ACCCBuzz blog posts each Friday, please sign up in the box to the left.


More Blog Posts