Head and Neck Cancer Awareness ‘Lacking’

Public awareness strategies necessary to decrease head and neck cancer burden

medwireNews: US research highlights the need for increased public awareness of both the causes of head and neck cancer (HNC) and its signs and symptoms.

The results of an online questionnaire completed by 2126 randomly selected US residents aged 18 to 92 years old revealed that the majority of respondents had little or no knowledge about HNC, regardless of gender, race, higher education or tobacco use.

The majority of participants were unsure what HNC comprises, with 21.0% incorrectly including diagnoses of brain cancer and many also mistaking skin cancer and lymphoma. Just 22.1% of respondents knew HNC includes throat cancer, 15.3% mouth cancer and 2.0% larynx malignancy.

Of concern, the most common symptom attributed to HNC was headache, by 19% of respondents, despite this being an uncommon indicator. Moreover, few individuals completing the survey suggested genuine HNC signs such as “red or white sores that do not heal” (14.9%), a sore throat (5.2%), or a swelling or lump in the throat (1.3%).

Although a significant proportion of participants identified smoking (54.5%) or chewing or spitting tobacco (32.7%) as a risk factor for cancers of the mouth or throat, just 0.8% volunteered human papillomavirus (HPV) as a causative agent.

On closer questioning, however, 12.8% of respondents knew of a link between HPV and throat cancer and 70.0% were aware of HPV vaccines.

“Given that routine screening for HNC by primary care physicians is rarely performed and currently not recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force, early detection depends on patient recognition”, explain Benjamin Judson, from Yale Otolaryngology in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, and co-authors.

“Similarly, primary prevention of HNC largely depends on awareness and avoidance of environmental risk factors. Public awareness of HNC is therefore necessary for both primary and secondary prevention.”

They therefore conclude in JAMA Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery: “Increased public education and awareness of HNC risk factors, signs, and symptoms is a critical first step to decreasing the burden of this preventable disease.”


Luryi A, Yarbrough W, Niccolai L, et al. Public awareness of head and neck cancers. A cross-sectional survey. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2014; Online First 5 June. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2014.867

medwireNews (www.medwireNews.com) is an independent clinical news service provided by Springer Healthcare Limited. © Springer Healthcare Ltd; 2014