Author: John Stearns

A joint study by the Hartford HealthCare (HHC) Cancer Institute and the Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center has demonstrated benefits of a web-based care plan for patients with head and neck cancer as a tool to better cope with side effects of treatment.

A web-based tool to help patients with head and neck cancer better deal with effects of their cancer treatment has proved beneficial to patients and doctors, according to a HHC doctor involved in developing the tool and studying its effectiveness.

“The compelling reason to do this work is because head and neck cancer has changed,” said Dr. Andrew Salner, medical director of the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital, HHC’s lead doctor on the joint study with MSK.

Head and neck cancer, once mostly associated with heavy drinkers and smokers who had other chronic diseases, is showing up more in younger and healthier patients, he said. That’s because of the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV), now the leading cause of the cancers that often target the tonsils and back of the tongue.

HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. HPV is equally divided among males and females, the latter who’ve been getting vaccinated against HPV to prevent cervical cancer, but oral cancers are happening more prevalently and are appearing in males and females, Salner said. As such, boys and girls are now recommended for the vaccine before they become sexually active to hopefully prevent future disease, he said.

Immunization rates were 38 percent for boys and 50 percent for girls in 2016, Salner said.

Most people with HPV will not develop cancer, according to HHC, but for those who do, treatment outcomes are good, but the effects of head and neck cancer treatment can cause difficulty with taste and swallowing, dental problems, jawbone injury, underactive thyroid and other issues, Salner said.

The study of 43 head and neck cancer patients in Hartford and New York tracked the benefit of a web-based care plan tailored to their specific cancer, treatment and side effects. Historically, so-called survivorship care plans were fairly generic in addressing issues patients might or might not encounter, Salner said.

“This study was unique because it personalized the side effects for the tumor site and the treatment for each patient,” Salner said. It offers specific effects to watch for, some of which may not show up for years after treatment, ways to help prevent problems, cope with treatment side effects and timelines for follow-up medical screenings.

“The patients really appreciated all components of the care plan,” which also included a 60- to 90-minute meeting to review with medical staff.

HHC and MSK are talking with the National Cancer Institute to do a much wider study of the care plan, Salner said. He also wants to examine how to scale up the plan for larger populations and integrate it into patients’ medical records.

Salner and Dr. David Pfister, chief of head and neck oncology services at the MSK Cancer Center, will discuss the study and link between HPV and head and neck cancer in a talk this afternoon, from 4 to 5, at the Hartford Hospital Wellness Center at Blue Back Square, West Hartford.

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