HEAD AND NECK CANCER ALLIANCE
Launching Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness (OHANCA) Week, non-profit partners with spokesperson Rob Paulsen to spread awareness, prevention, and support.
It might not be the first type of cancers that people think of when they consider that dreaded diagnosis, but oral, head and neck cancer, which appears in the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, thyroid gland, or salivary glands, has claimed the lives of some of our most beloved figures: baseball greats Babe Ruth and Tony Gwynn; legendary film critic Roger Ebert; beloved performers George Harrison and Sammy Davis, Jr; and historical figures from Ulysses S. Grant to John Gotti. With a tradition of serving patients and survivors dating back over three decades, the non-profit Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) (headandneck.org) is launching its 22nd annual week-long awareness drive in April, OHANCA (Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness week), hoping to ensure that a diagnosis will not be fatal for future generations.
That means it’s a busy time for the staff of HNCA, as well as the hundreds of medical and dental professionals and volunteers across the US and in twenty countries worldwide who participate in the program, according to HNCA’s executive director Amanda Hollinger. “Of course we extend all of our work throughout the year, but OHANCA allows us and our medical and dental partners to come together and focus all of those efforts for a greater impact,” she explains. The week-long effort involves the participation of over 250 hospitals, clinics, and other medical networks and professionals, who work with HNCA to provide free screening, education, awareness, and other forms of support to those at risk for, or impacted by, oral, head and neck cancer.
This year, the HNCA is also focusing on the preventative measures represented by the HPV vaccine. “There’s a strong link between HPV and throat cancer, and we’re fortunate enough to now have a vaccine,” Hollinger explains. “HPV head and neck cancer now exceeds cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related cancer in the United States, so we’ve really made a coordinated effort to tie in our message with HPV awareness.”
The origins of the HNCA date back to the mid-1980s and Oscar-winning actor Yul Brynner, who famously, after being diagnosed with the throat cancer that would eventually claim his life, went on a crusade to spread a message about the danger of smoking and cancer awareness. Eventually, a television commercial released after he died served as a crucial moment in our cultural awareness about the dangers of tobacco addiction.
But his legacy has extended far beyond that chilling ad: he also established the Yul Brynner Foundation, dedicated to awareness of throat and oral cancer. A decade later, Dr. Terry Day founded the Association for Head and Neck Cancer in Memphis, and shortly thereafter, the two organizations merged to form the HNCA.
The HNCA has long served as a “one-stop shop” resource where those impacted by these cancers can find treatment news, therapeutic support, access to information and educational resources, and connection to peers and fellow patients. But Hollinger also says that the mission has evolved, as more and more patients find successful treatments and survive longer than patients of a generation or two ago. “We’re not only about prevention and awareness, but also survivorship, which means counseling people who might have lingering side effects from treatment.”
Hollinger is also grateful to the many volunteers who are members of the HNCA’s Ambassador program, along with the annual celebrity spokespeople who help connect the organization’s message to the general public. “Our ambassadors are both survivors and caregivers who we engage to speak in the community about their experiences,” Hollinger explains. “They might speak at events, and certainly during OHANCA week they are key people that help promote and drive our efforts around the country.”
This year’s celebrity spokesperson is voice actor Rob Paulsen – one of the most successful voice actors of all time, and known to generations of animation viewers from his work on “Animaniacs,” “Pinky and the Brain,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Diagnosed with throat cancer a few years ago, Paulsen was looking at not only a difficult medical ordeal, but perhaps the end of his livelihood. Fortunately, Paulsen’s treatment was successful and he’s been able to return to work, and has thrown himself behind the work of the HNCA and other organizations that speak to cancer survivors.
“We’ve had amazing spokespeople over the years,” says Hollinger, citing actor Michael Douglas, NFL star Jim Kelly, and football coaching legend Lou Holtz, all of whom survived bouts with cancer. “But Rob is so special because he connects across so many generations – his voice is his career, his passion, and he can impact adults as well as children. He’s the perfect person because he is so familiar, engaging, and wants to give back to the world.”
OHANCA week also gives people the opportunity to be screened for cancer at one of the host facilities or events, though Hollinger concedes that any diagnosis of cancer will require more than a simple exam. “It’s more about the education and awareness we can generate,” she says, “but and the screenings absolutely do identify things that are suspicious or should receive follow-up care. About 10% of those who are screened through the program are referred for more examination or other treatment, so it’s a good first step.”
With most of the work being done by volunteers, Hollinger is impressed daily with the amount of dedication and determination everyone brings to their work on behalf of the HNCA. “Every day there’s someone that’s newly diagnosed, and it’s amazing to know that they can turn to us through our phone lines, or join our online support community with over 9000 members, or engage across social media – they feel so much less alone. That’s the heart of our job, and why it’s so important.”