Head and Neck Cancer: What are Contributing Factors?

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Guest: Dr. Judith M. Skoner - Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery (ENT)

Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry

Announcer: Welcome to an MUSC Health Podcast.

Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am talking with Dr. Judith Skoner, who is assistant professor of otolaryngology, which is ears, nose, and throat here at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Skoner, you do a lot of surgery for patients, who have head and neck cancer and that’s a form of cancer that not always, but often is associated with lifestyle, with smoking, and with alcohol. I find myself wondering what the particular psychological issues are, that get stood up in your patients when they turn up with a diagnosis if it’s a pretty scary diagnosis.

Dr. Judith M. Skoner: Well, I think the first thing, which is just the obvious is tremendous fear is the biggest thing, but I think that our patients tend to feel somewhat guilty that they caused it. The cancer is a result of their misdeeds and that being smoking and drinking, which really is unfortunate because it’s true that while smoking and drinking is certainly a major cause of head and neck cancer. Once we make that diagnosis, we try to get beyond all of the those sort of things, so that we can just deal with the appropriate diagnosis and treatment and get them away from feeling so guilty and persecuted and the other thing we see is that since head and neck cancer frequently affects organs like the tongue or the throat or the voice box that patients are disabled and often times even disfigured. So, that again society looks at them and then thinks oh! they sound weird, they can’t talk, and what is that thing in their mouth. Sometimes the tumors can not smell good, so they might have an odor about them. So, again there are a lot of things that we take for granted; speaking, swallowing, and looking normal that when people develop these tumors, it’s out there for everyone to see and then judge them by. So, I think it’s an unfortunate sort of side effect of the cancer that we deal with whereas other types of cancer, although they are just as horrible and life threatening -- yeah often times you can’t see them. There are hidden in places that aren’t available for strangers to judge one by.

Dr. Linda Austin: I think it’s so important to give a two part message, one that even though it is true that smoking and drinking caused these tumors, I think we all have to recognize that those are powerfully addictive substances and that once addicted people don’t continue their addiction joyfully, but often because it’s just very, very hard to quit.

Dr. Judith M. Skoner: Exactly, so that’s why we certainly try to do everything we can to make sure the patients quit and help them along that path, so that they -- once they are treated, they continue in the smoke free, tobacco free, and alcohol free lifestyle, so that they reduce their risk for recurrence and the other thing that we as a team try to do is get the message of prevention across, so trying to prevent people from beginning the cycle of addictions.

Dr. Linda Austin: If truth be told, we all have little habits and addictions of our own that they get in the way of life is just that this is the tough one when it turns and pops up as a cancer.

Dr. Judith M. Skoner: Exactly, right.

Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Skoner thanks so much.

Dr. Judith M. Skoner: Thank you.

Announcer: If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection at (843) 792-1414


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