A Cancer Knowledge Gap

Head and neck cancer information not well known among Americans

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The best way to beat cancer is to prevent it from occurring in the first place, when possible. With head and neck cancers, there are several ways to reduce risk.

Yet the general public may not be as aware of those risk factors, or even of symptoms, as they could be.

A recent study found that public knowledge about head and throat cancer was not very high.

While most individuals surveyed knew about a vaccine that prevents a disease that can cause head and neck cancers, very few individuals recognized some of the common symptoms of these cancers.

"Learn about head and neck cancer risk factors and symptoms."

The study, led by Alexander Luryi, BS, of the Department of Surgery at Yale University School of Medicine, looked at how much the general public knows about head and neck cancers.

The researchers conducted an online survey of 2,126 randomly selected adults throughout the US in 2013.

The questions asked about knowledge of symptoms and risk factors of head and neck cancers. The questions also assessed the survey participants knowledge of the link between head and neck cancers and human papillomavirus.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause head and neck cancers.

There is a vaccine against HPV which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for males and females.

The results of the survey revealed that many adults are not very knowledgeable about head and neck cancers.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of the adults surveyed reported that they were "not very" or "not at all" knowledgeable about head and neck cancers. These findings did not vary much based on the respondents' sex, race, education or use of tobacco.

Tobacco use is another risk factor for head and neck cancers.

Only small numbers of people were able to identify that cancer of the throat (22 percent), the mouth (15 percent) or the larynx (2 percent) were types of head and neck cancers.

Further, 21 percent of the people thought—incorrectly—that brain cancer was a type of head and neck cancer.

In terms of symptoms, only 15 percent of the respondents identified "red or white sores that do not heal" as a symptom.

Other symptoms were far less recognized: 5 percent did not recognize a sore throat as a symptom; 1 percent did not recognize "swelling or lump in the throat"; and 0.5 percent did not recognize "bleeding in the mouth or throat."

Just over half the respondents (54 percent) knew that smoking was risk factors, though only a third (33 percent) knew that chewing or spitting tobacco was also a risk factor.

Although only 1 percent of respondent identified HPV as a risk factor, more in-depth questions found that 13 percent knew about the link between HPV and throat cancer.

In addition, 70 percent of the respondents knew about the HPV vaccine.

The study was published June 5 in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. The research was funded by the William U. Gardner Memorial Student Research Fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine.

The survey was commissioned by the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance and was administered by Harris Interactive, Inc.

Four of the authors are board members and one is the president of the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance. The president is also the president of the American Head and Neck Society. No other conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
June 6, 2014
Last Updated:
June 9, 2014