How head and neck cancer screenings can save lives

More than 48,000 cancers that occur on a patient’s head or in their throats and mouths are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.

Understanding the underlying causes of these cancers, as well as ensuring they are caught early, drives Neil Gross, M.D., to organize free screenings at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute that draw hundreds of people each year. He shared insights into what he’s learned after holding the screenings, now in their seventh year, and helping other health care institutions start them in Salem and Coos Bay.

What does a head and neck cancer screening entail?

A head and neck cancer screening is quick, painless and low-tech. It involves a visual evaluation of the face and scalp, skin, mouth, tongue, throat and neck. To better view the tongue, mouth and throat, physicians often use a light and tongue depressor. They use their hands to feel the neck and shoulder areas to check the thyroid and other potentially impacted areas.

Screenings are conducted by OHSU physicians, dentists, and other physicians. The medical staff will help participants learn how to differentiate between harmless symptoms and potentially dangerous signs of cancer. Following the exam, patients can arrange for a follow-up appointment, if necessary.

What research studies have you advanced through past screenings?

Researchers asked participants at the 2013 screenings if they wanted to take part in a study about human papillomavirus (HPV), its prevalence in Oregon, and the risk to long-term partners of those with HPV-associated cancer.

This year, OHSU researchers will ask screening participants if they are willing to give a saliva sample that will be studied for its microRNA content. MicroRNAs are small snippets of material in human cells that regulate how genes function. Researchers will explore a potential link between microRNA counts in different types of head and neck cancer and compare those to samples from healthy participants recruited during the screening.

Can you tell us about a patient who was helped by one of your screenings?

Last year, a physician’s assistant told Dick Brack, suffering from long-running sinus issues, to get checked at our free head and neck cancer screening. Following a short check and conversation at the screening, he was referred for further examination.

Mr. Brack had cancer involving lymph nodes in the neck, which were removed. As part of Brack’s treatment, he was enrolled in a clinical trial to test a common steroid medication, dexamethasone, to reduce pain and improve swallowing after surgery. He went on to receive radiation therapy at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.

And one year later, Brack is happily retired, living cancer-free.

Tell me about this year’s screening?

As part of national Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute is offering free screenings from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 25 in the OHSU Center for Health & Healing lobby, 3303 S.W. Bond Ave., Portland. No appointment is necessary. Learn more about the screening here.


Neil Gross, M.D., is an associate professor of head and neck clinical trials and robotic surgery for the Knight Cancer Institute. He is responsible for developing the annual head and neck awareness and free screening day at OHSU. His current research focuses on treating HPV-associated head and neck cancers, minimally invasive surgical approaches including transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and developing tools to better predict the results of treatment for patients with head, neck and thyroid cancers.