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Pandemic Puts Some Cancer Screenings Into Sharp Decline

Kaiser Permanente Northwest is a leader in proactive screening for head and neck cancer and offers innovative robotic treatment.

Presented by Kaiser Permanente April 28, 2021

Screening helped diagnose Kaiser Permanente member Chary Krout with a cancerous tumor, which was successfully treated.

Three years ago, Chary Krout, a human resources consultant and Kaiser Permanente Northwest member, was stunned when what seemed like a harmless lump on her neck turned out to be a cancerous tumor that had been caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

Fortunately for Chary, who is married with two grown sons, screening and early detection allowed her cancer to be diagnosed early enough to give her multiple treatment options.

Her experience underscores the importance of regular cancer screenings. However, among the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, one has recently become clearer: a worrying drop in routine cancer screenings — including screenings for head and neck cancer.

“We’ve noticed a drop-off in people being seen by primary care, and what that means is when they come in, they have bigger tumors,” says Dr. Sunshine Dwojak, an otolaryngologist and surgeon at Kaiser Permanente Northwest. This is problematic because early detection almost always leads to better outcomes, according to Dr. Dwojak.

Evaluating Risk Factors and Symptoms

For patients like Chary, the good news is the survival rate for head and neck cancer is extremely high. Kaiser Permanente Northwest helps set the standard for proactive, innovative care to catch cancer early and treat it successfully. Not only do primary care doctors evaluate risk factors and symptoms, but all Kaiser Permanente dentists screen for head and neck cancer at routine exams. When a patient is diagnosed with this type of cancer, Kaiser Permanente offers highly innovative care, including robotic surgery.

After discussing the pros and cons with Dr. Dwojak, Chary opted for robotic surgery. During this procedure, robot arms are placed in the back of the throat, and the surgeon works at a console to control the arms and remove the tumor. Patients stay in the hospital for a few days of observation. And if the treatment is successful, no radiation or chemotherapy is required.

Chary’s procedure went smoothly, and she was able to return to work after two weeks.

“Dr. Dwojak brought humanity to this process,” says Chary. “We’re not just bodies with cancer; we’re humans with feelings who want to be seen and heard. I got that through Kaiser.”

Since then, Chary continues to be cancer free and has returned to doing what she loves best: working on the cabin she recently built with her husband and exploring the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge.

Raising Awareness

April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month. So what can you do to take care of yourself? First, understand the risk factors, which include chronic tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and HPV infection. Since the HPV vaccine only became available in 2009, anyone 40 years or older who has ever been sexually active may have contracted HPV without realizing it.

Second, “don’t let preventive care become an afterthought,” warns Chary. “Just because you feel and look healthy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get screenings.” If you’ve let your regular visits to the dentist and primary care doctor slip, make the call to get back on track. And don’t delay care if you experience a lump in the throat, a sore throat, or a hoarse voice that doesn’t go away over time.

Finally, Dr. Dwojak urges parents to talk to their children’s pediatricians about the vaccine that prevents the spread of HPV, which can lead to several types of cancer in both men and women.

To learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s cancer care, visit kp.org/cancer/nw