The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance launch their 22nd Annual Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week (OHANCA) in April. You might not realize it, but some of our culture’s most beloved figures have died from oral, head, or neck cancer – from Babe Ruth to Sammy Davis, Jr. to George Harrison. But there are also those who survived, like Michael Douglas and Jim Kelly. And working with patients and survivors for over two decades is The Head and Neck Cancer Alliance has just launched their 22nd Annual Oral, Head, and Neck Cancer Awareness Week (OHANCA) April 13-19. Annually, over 250 hospitals, clinics, and medical offices around the world have provided free screenings and education during Awareness Week. Due to Covid-19, screenings have been postponed to May and beyond, but free screenings are always offered throughout the year.
At the right time, 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. This 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.”
HNCA dates 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.
Remarkably, 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.”
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.
Most of the work being done by volunteers, and 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.”