COVID-19 is on Track to Increase Incidence of Head and Neck Cancer

After two years in the pandemic, it has become clear that the impacts of COVID-19 reach far beyond what we ever imagined. But have you ever considered how the pandemic might affect the incidence and survival rates of cancer? Probably not. However, recent studies have highlighted two concerning trends that are expected to influence these statistics for head and neck cancer, both short-term and long-term.

Head and neck cancer is a group of cancers affecting the oral cavity (mouth), larynx (voice box), pharynx (throat), sinuses, nasal cavity, or salivary glands. More than 65,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer every year, with 14,600 lives lost. But what does COVID have to do with head and neck cancer?

As the pandemic made its way across the world, many people postponed their routine checkups with their doctors and dentists. This means that valuable opportunities to spot early symptoms of cancer were lost. The fact is, most Americans do not know the early symptoms of head and neck cancer, and most symptoms are easy to ignore, explain away, or go completely unnoticed. This means that head and neck cancer is often not diagnosed until the later stages, after it has begun to spread. It is through routine medical or dental exams that early symptoms are often spotted. Because early diagnosis is key to treating head and neck cancer successfully, it is likely that in the short-term, there may be an increase in cases that are difficult to treat or result in death.

Postponement of routine well visits and preventive care was seen across all age groups, including within pediatrics. It is in this age group that perhaps the most valuable opportunities have been lost. Age 11-13 is the prime time to vaccinate preteens against HPV (human papillomavirus), an extremely common sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer later in life. Most people in the United States will contract at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime, and most of us will be infected by the time we reach our mid-20s. Vaccinating children before they become sexually active is not just good sense; it’s cancer prevention in action.

But, as routine care was postponed, HPV vaccination rates for preteens dropped by as much as 73%. Experts now predict that it will take almost a decade to make up the ground that was lost during the pandemic. During the years that we struggle to catch up, some children will age out of the prime years for vaccination, leaving them vulnerable to infection with HPV and the six types of cancer it can cause later in life. In the long-term, this will result in more cancer diagnoses.

On the bright side, we can each play a role in monitoring our own health and being proactive in catching our children up on the vaccinations they may have missed over the past two years. And now is as good a time as any.

In honor of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week (April 3-9, 2022), consider seeing your physician for that routine care you’ve put off; ask your pediatrician about the HPV vaccine for your preteens and teenagers; take the opportunity to participate in a local head and neck cancer screening event; or do a self-exam at home. The action you take now could save your life or the life of a loved one.

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I remain optimistic and use my humor as a tool for survival. I’ve lost approximately 45 pounds through this journey, and I had the weight to lose, but I tell people I wouldn’t recommend the cancer diet!Gail Jackson
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer

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