Following on from the celebration of nurses on the frontline this week, here is an article from a Clinical Head and Neck Nurse Specialist, Karen Guner from Queens Hospital, Romford explaining why more awareness still needs to be raised about head and neck cancers.

I have worked most of my nursing career with people who have had head and neck cancer.  For the past 14 years that has been as a Clinical Nurse Specialist. My role involves following patients throughout their pathway, including being present for diagnosis. Head and neck cancer can affect more than 30 areas, not including the brain or the thyroid (nhs.uk). There are approximately 12,000 new cases a year of head and neck cancer (nhs.uk). 

Typically, Head and neck cancer is associated with smoking, alcohol, and also the belief that it is specific to the older population. This is now changing, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) affects people of any age group, including those who have no history of smoking and drinking. 

While I have been working specialist cases, it is in my experience that patients are of course shocked, but also unaware that cancer in this area is even possible. Many people have heard about head and neck cancer related to Michael Douglas but even then, are vague about the details. 

Social media has now made it possible share information about head and neck cancer screening to a wider audience. As a Clinical Nurse Specialist, it is difficult to check what impact this has on people seeking advice earlier; we use posters and information leaflets to raise an awareness in the departments that we work in. In my experience, people only seem to go looking for information when they have the condition, rather than, proactively looking at preventive or screening measures.  

Those who attend the support group that I organise, Cancer Head Incorporating Neck Support (CHINS), comment on a lack of publicity about head and neck cancer; they feel frustrated there is not as much media coverage as there is for other cancers. As a support group we attend the Mouth Cancer Foundations 10 KM Awareness Walk, to promote mouth cancer. Throughout Mouth Cancer Action Month, we spread awareness with a stall in the hospital entrance, and hope to approach television programmes such as ‘This Morning’. 
HPV associated cancer is instantaneously linked with cervical cancer - I got excited when I saw a Macmillan advert on a bus at the hospital advertising HPV but was downhearted when I found it was only related to cervical cancer. I wonder, how many women that have a positive HPV cervical smear are given advice on precaution for transmitting the virus to their partners. 

When talking to people about HPV associated head and neck cancer it often becomes a sexual health discussion trying to avoid proportioning blame. A large proportion of people diagnosed with HPV associated head and neck cancer are shocked at how the cancer is transferred. In the past, I have had couples that have had difficulty with the sexual implications and this has put a strain on relationships. Throughout the diagnosis and treatment of any cancers people need their partners, or loved ones to help them through. However, I have found that HPV associated cancer patients have needed the most support from their partners. This extra stress can put relationships under immense pressure. It is important to ensure they have the correct information to reassure them.

During my time as a nurse I have seen progressive changes in treatment based on research findings. Although figures are rising, head and neck cancer is still seen as a rare cancer. We need to make sure that information is readily available to help the early detection of head and neck cancer, and improve the outcome for others.

For more information visit www.mouthcancerfoundation.org