For those with head and neck cancers, the obvious scars and facial and oral reconstruction that accompany cancer treatment stand as visible reminders of the cancer experience. And they often deter survivors from seeing friends or even going out in public.
But at the Keck School of Medicine Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery clinic at Healthcare Consultation Center II, a new support group has drawn head and neck cancer survivors in droves. The support group offers a much-needed outlet for those with a cancer once hidden in shadows.
Faced with disfigurement or difficulty speaking, some head and neck cancer patients may become isolated and depressed. But the group reminds survivors they are not alone.
Only a few centers across the country offer support groups for those with head and neck cancer; most are at academic medical centers such as USC.
Although these cancers garner less attention than major cancers such as those of the breast and prostate, they can change lives forever. Each year about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancers—comprising about 5 percent of all cancer cases.
Head and neck cancers are malignancies in the mouth, throat, sinuses, nasal cavity, voice box or salivary glands. Some also consider skin tumors on the face and neck to be included.
“I operate on about 20 patients with these cancers every month,” said Uttam K. Sinha, associate professor, chief and program director in the Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery at the Keck School. “What is important for these patients is not only treatments that have the greatest chance of success, but also those that maintain their quality of life. And having the support of other patients, as well as getting regular information from health professionals, is critical to upholding that quality of life.”
Sinha attends the support group, which was created in August 2005 through the efforts of Stanley “Zack” Cherry, a psychotherapist and head and neck cancer patient, and USC speech pathologist Brenda Villegas. Group members meet the first Saturday morning of each month on the fourth floor of HCC II, in the head and neck surgery clinic waiting area.
At a recent meeting, about two dozen head and neck cancer survivors heard updates on each other’s progress, visited with Sinha and Villegas and listened to a talk on nutrition.
Many of the survivors shared similar stories. After striving to recover from surgery, they discovered they could not tolerate the taste of their favorite food, or perhaps nothing smelled the same.
Like many, Blair Franks, a throat cancer survivor, had trouble eating. But a few days before the meeting, he had been able to eat a hamburger. “It’s a real joy to be able to taste food again, even if it’s a Big Mac,” Franks said, as fellow survivors laughed.
As Sinha explained, when cancer surgeons and oncologists see evidence that cancer has spread beyond the original tumor, they recommend radiation or chemotherapy (or both) in addition to surgery. However, these therapies can affect taste buds and damage the salivary glands.
As a result, saliva can become a rare commodity, resulting in dry mouth, cavities and more. But in the support group, survivors talk about their “spit troubles” openly and share solutions.
Sinha also shared information with survivors about his research, which focuses on making cancer cells more sensitive to radiation and reducing cancer metastasis, among other topics. “This week, we got some good results from our research,” Sinha said. “We submitted four grants today.”
In turn, the involvement and close relationship with the department has encouraged patients to help raise funds for head and neck research at USC. The efforts provide concrete goals and another tangible way for survivors to battle cancer.
Jim Franchino, a tongue cancer survivor, attended with his wife. “Six months ago was the day I had surgery and the day we got rid of our cancer,” he announced.
In the meantime, he has undergone reconstruction of his tongue and has begun therapy to improve his swallowing.
“To me, it’s about having the right frame of mind—thinking positive,” Franchino said. “It’s about doing what you can—and a little bit more.”
For information about the support group, please call the Head and Neck Clinic at (323) 442-5790.