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Quick, Painless Test Can Diagnose Throat, Neck Cancer

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DURHAM, N.C. — Four years ago, John Behun noticed he had a problem that would not go away.

Behun said he was experiencing long periods of hoarseness and that over time, it became difficult to breathe.

He had throat cancer.

Radiation therapy at Duke University did not work, so he had surgery, which involved opening an airway in his neck to remove the cancer around his vocal cords.

He wishes he would have had it checked sooner.

"When someone has a cold, they can have changes in their voice, but when the cold goes away, their voice should get better," said Dr. David Brizel, a Duke radiation oncologist.

Those most at risk of head and neck cancers are men. It occurs almost twice as often as it does in women. About 80 percent to 90 percent of victims use or have used alcohol and tobacco.

Even then, no one is in the clear.

"I never smoked," Behun said.

Some cancer screening can be uncomfortable, but for head and neck cancer, it is quick and painless.

Screening begins in the oral cavity, where doctors look for lumps in the lips, teeth and gums. Many dentists now include that as a regular part of patient exams.

The rest of the exam is like a three- or four-minute massage behind the ears, jawbone, the muscles of the neck and under the Adam's apple.

Medical experts say people may notice new lumps on their own and that they should be examined by their physician.

Behun is thankful he discovered his cancer when he did.

"Granted, I lost my voice, but I have a new life, and it is a good life," he said.

Duke University led a major clinical trial that set a new standard for treatment of cancers like Behun's. Treatment that combines chemotherapy and radiation may help more people avoid radical surgery.

The Duke Head & Neck Cancer Clinic offers free screening all day Saturday. No registration is necessary.


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