Cases of head and neck cancers are on the rise in New Zealand and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is being blamed.
Smoking and drinking have always been the main causes of head and neck cancers like throat cancer, and they're still recognised as the main contributors - but HPV is behind a rise in head and neck cancers in Western countries including New Zealand, and medical professionals are hopeful that the recent introduction of the HPV immunisation with Gardasil will help to bring these numbers down again.
Since January the HPV vaccination has been available free to those aged between nine and 26 years in New Zealand. It protects against infection from the types of HPV that cause most cervical, anal and genital cancers, as well as some mouth and throat cancers.
Worryingly, head and neck cancers can easily go undetected because their symptoms can present as mild and common - you may believe you're just suffering from a cold.
In the case of 42-year-old Christchurch mum-of-one Cosette Calder, who was diagnosed with throat cancer two years ago, it was earache and a lump in her throat that sent her to her GP.
She was also coughing a lot, sometimes had the taste of blood in her mouth, found it painful to yawn and was having difficulty swallowing.
Other signs can include an ulcer on the tongue, a one-sided sore throat, a hoarse voice, or changes to your skin in your face and neck area. Any of these symptoms that persist for more than three weeks should be checked by a doctor.
Calder's GP referred her to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who confirmed, following tests, that she was experiencing early stages of throat cancer.
Calder recalls feeling "shocked and upset".
"However I was thankful that I had an early diagnosis, as this gave me the best chance at being cured and leading a healthy normal life after treatment.”
Around 520 cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed in New Zealand each year. There are also about 200 cases of metastatic non-melanoma skin cancer of the head and neck diagnosed annually.
In Christchurch alone, between four and six new head and neck cancer patients are being seen each week. Globally, head and neck cancers affect about 500,000 people and cause 200,000 deaths annually.
Tomorrow is World Head and Neck Cancer Day and Calder hopes her story will encourage others to visit their GP if they find they just can't shake symptoms that we often associate with a common cold or just feeling 'a little under the weather'.
Christchurch Hospital Head and Neck Surgeon, Dr Robert Allison, says treatment is complex and can involve major surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
Treatment can have a significant effect on a patient’s ability to eat, swallow, or talk, while surgery can have a major effect on a patient’s appearance.
“Many patients we treat have advanced cancer, which means treatment is more complex with a lower chance of treatment success. Even if the cancer is successfully treated, it can still have a major effect on a patient’s quality of life,” Dr Allison states.
“If general practice teams and members of the public were more aware of the early signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, then we would see patients with less advanced symptoms and consequently a better rate of treatment success.”
For Calder, her treatment journey was long and hard. First was minor surgery to do a biopsy on the tumour that had been discovered in her throat. The next procedure was to insert a feeding tube into her stomach - difficulty eating is common. For two months during and after treatment, this is how Calder feed herself.
For six weeks, Calder underwent intensive chemo-radiation – which combined chemotherapy (once a week) and radiation (five times a week). Before this began she had a plastic mask made of her face and shoulders, which she would wear during radiation treatment. This mask would be placed over her head and attached to the table she lay on to keep her in the right position during the treatment.
“This was the single hardest part of facing the treatment,” she says.
Two years on, Cosette says she is happy to be clear of cancer, and is now actively involved with the Cancer Society Head and Neck Cancer Group and with an online Facebook support group.
“I feel happy and healthy again, but it was a gruelling experience. I have my life back and I and enjoy seeing my seven-year-old son passing his milestones. I am grateful for my second chance.”
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