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Doctors at Morristown Medical Center Draw Attention to Head and Neck Cancer; Offer Free Screenings

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MORRISTOWN, NJ – April is Head and Neck Cancer Month and the doctors at Atlantic Health System are looking to build awareness around these types of cancers.

“Head and Neck cancer doesn’t get a lot of celebrity publicity like breast cancer and other cancers,” said Dr. Tom Thomas director of head and neck reconstructive and transoral robotic surgery at Morristown Medical Center. “People are aware of these other types of cancer, but not many people are talking about head and neck cancer.”

To draw attention to these cancers, Thomas and his staff organized three days of screenings during the first week of April. More than 75 people participated.

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It used to be that heavy smokers and drinkers in their late 40s and early 50s got head and neck cancer, Thomas said. However, in the past 15 years there’s been a shift: People in their late 30s early and 40s are increasingly getting tonsil and throat cancer.

“HPV infection related oral cancer is significantly increasing over the last decade,” Thomas said. “It is much more common in educated white males, and more men are affected than women. My goal is not to say no to anyone who wants to get screened.”

The screenings took ten to 15 minutes each and focused on the participants’ personal and family history as well as an examination by a doctor.

Thomas, who came from The Dana Farber Cancer Institute, is looking to introduce an interactive piece to the Atlantic Health System website where people can ask questions. For now, anyone with questions can email him directly at headandneckcancer@atlantichealthsystem.org. He said he will answer all questions himself and make referrals as necessary.

According to Atlantic Health’s website, some signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer include a sore throat that won’t go away, frequent trouble swallowing, ear pain, a change in voice, multiple sexual partners and a history of high risk behaviors.

“Our goal is to Increase awareness, diagnose early, treat quickly and get them (the patients) out,” Thomas said.

But what happens when treatment is finished? That is a question being asked by Dr. James Wong chairman of the Head and Neck Cancer Institute.

“We do the standard treatment, surgery, radiation and new immunotherapy that everyone does,” Wong said. “However, we have an exciting new program that is now focusing our attention to multimodalities. Our focus was on how to save their lives. But we are learning that there are a lot of side effects from the treatment.”

Wong said doctors “used to say, `Congratulations Mr. Smith, we just got your scans and there is no evidence of disease. We will see you in three months.’ And we pretend that everyone is fine, that everyone is happy. Doctors go home to congratulate themselves for saving another life. The patient is supposed to be happy. But we now think that these people have a lot of problems.”

Wong said some patients have physical and emotional problems after treatment as well as trouble eating, loss of taste and sore mouths. So doctors at the Institute are turning their attention to what happens after the patient is cured.

Working with The Chambers Center for Well Being, Wong began a pilot-program where patients go through a 10- to 12-week course that incorporates different modalities like acupuncture, diet, acupressure, meditation, stress management, exercise and yoga.

 “This isn’t standard medicine,” said Wong. “Some of these modalities can influence the immune system. We are just starting to understand the difference between mental and physical and how they come together.”

Under Thomas and Wong, the Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center looks at the whole well-being. Three patients went through the pilot program so far.

“We are getting good feedback from the patients who have gone through the pilot program,” said Laura Bogert, patient coordinator at the Head and Neck Cancer Institute. “The program is a little sampler of other modalities and we are finding that everyone benefits.”

When asked about the future of head and neck cancer treatment, Wong smiled somewhat mischievously and said, “Stay tuned … We have something that, if we get it going, will change all medicines.”

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