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Upstate Cancer Center's initiative to prevent head and neck cancer through community education

May 7, 2018

    Head and neck cancers are relatively rare, making up only about 4% of cancers diagnosed. As a result, public awareness of the disease is relatively limited in comparison to more common tumor types, such as breast, lung, or prostate.

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    However, head and neck is one of the most preventable forms of cancer, making it particularly important to increase awareness of which avoidable behaviors can help prevent the disease. In fact, studies estimate that 93% of all head and neck cancers are caused by heavy drinking, smoking, and/or contraction of the human papillomavirus (HPV).

    In an effort to increase awareness of the disease in their community, Upstate Cancer Center in Syracuse, New York, developed an educational advocacy project around head and neck cancer prevention. The Upstate Cancer Center is part of Upstate Medical University, an academic medical center that is part of the State University of New York. Their advocacy project, entitled "beneath the surFACE," aims to educate students, ages 10 to 18+, about head and neck cancer and the healthy lifestyle choices they can make to help prevent a diagnosis. Upstate's campaign took a three-pronged approach to engage their community: 

    Step 1: Provide education to school districts in their community

    The first element of this initiative was to provide education to local school districts around prevention of HPV and head and neck cancers.

    Upstate Cancer Center staff visited schools to discuss what steps students could take to prevent head and neck cancer and provided stories of patients' journeys or their own personal experiences with cancer. To date, Upstate staff have traveled to eight school districts in their surrounding community, reaching over 3,000 students.

    Step 2: Incorporate an element of creativity into their campaign

    Upstate also partnered with schools and local artists to repurpose old radiation face masks worn by head and neck cancer patients into works of art. For the advanced high school art students participating in the project, repurposing face masks allowed for additional reflection on head and neck cancer, a continued conversation with their friends and family, and the opportunity to help current cancer patients. Upon completion of the project, the transformed masks were auctioned off to benefit head and neck cancer patients at Upstate Cancer Center. 

    Step 3: Establish a lasting message through creation of a documentary and educational materials

    Finally, they created a documentary on the importance of preventing head and neck cancers. The award-winning documentary interviews patients and survivors on their experience through diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. It also profiles staff members at Upstate Cancer Center on prevention of the disease and the difficulties of treatment. In addition, students and educators were given the opportunity to share their experiences learning about head and neck cancer and prevention through Upstate's educational program.

    To supplement the documentary, Upstate is creating informational materials to guide educators on how to effectively communicate the message of head and neck cancer prevention, with the goal of reaching as many students as possible. These materials will be distributed to any interested school free of charge and include a self-guided lesson for instructors, class activities, and HPV fact sheets.

    Upstate hopes that through their educational project, the narrative around prevention of head and neck cancer will spread to multiple school districts. To track the impact of this initiative, Upstate will administer surveys for instructors to fill out before and after they deliver their lesson on head and neck cancer prevention. These surveys will assess student awareness of head and neck cancer and the percent of students who would consider HPV vaccination before and after the session. In addition, Upstate plans to assess the HPV rates of school districts that have received this education to determine if they can see a measurable decline in HPV rates. The ultimate goal is that increased awareness of head and neck cancer prevention will lead to a decline in the occurrence of this disease in our country.

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