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Head, Neck Cancers Easy to Treat If Caught Early

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Head and neck cancers account for about three percent of cancers in the U.S. but unlike many other well known cancers, they are very easy to screen for. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.

Three years ago as she faced surgery for mouth cancer, Jessica Tar never thought she would be hosting a convention of 3,000 head and neck cancer doctors—sharing the stage with actor Michael Douglas, who is also a survivor.

"I learned that the surgery was going to debilitate my speech. I thought that I would be relegated to background work following the surgery," Tar says.

After being treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, though, she's back to acting and singing.

The key, her doctor says, was knowing that something wasn't right with her body and proactively seeking answers.

"I was actually playing my guitar and singing at my friend’s wedding in September of 2010 and I just remember thinking to myself ‘Wow, I can’t, I can’t even get through this song. There’s definitely something wrong,'" Tar recalls.

She was misdiagnosed a few times but eventually her oral surgeon discovered the persistent lesion on her tongue was cancerous.

"In my case, personally, HPV was not a factor, smoking was not a factor, alcoholism was not a factor, so where did this come from?" Tar says.

That's still unclear.

It was Chief of Sloan Kettering's Head and Neck Division, Jatin Shah, who eventually performed Jessica's surgery, removing part of her tongue.

"Unlike breast, lung or colon, which you don’t see, this is a visible cancer. Many times patients and even their physicians, sort of—I won’t use the word would neglect—but let it pass as this is infection, this is sore throat. But there is time to say ‘stop, could it be cancer?'" Shah says.

Unlike Jessica's situation, the majority of head and neck cancers—90 percent—are preventable. Most are a product of lifestyle and social habits.

"Change in lifestyle can not only prevent the cancer, but prevent multiple cancers and if diagnosed early, they are curable cancers," Shah says.

They include thyroid cancer and cancers brought on by a human papillomavirus, or HPV infection, which are common and on the rise—especially among men who engage in oral sex with multiple female partners.

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