Public Awareness of Head and Neck Cancers: A Cross-Sectional Survey

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Abstract

IMPORTANCE

Head and neck cancer (HNC) is responsible for substantial morbidity, mortality, and cost in the United States. Early detection and lifestyle risk factors associated with HNC, both determinants of disease burden and outcomes, are interrelated with public knowledge of this disease. Understanding of current public knowledge of HNC is lacking.

OBJECTIVE

To assess awareness and knowledge of HNC among US adults.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS

Online survey of 2126 randomly selected adults in the United States conducted in 2013.

INTERVENTIONS

Online survey administration.

MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES

Subjective and objective assessment of knowledge of HNC including symptoms, risk factors, and association with the human papillomavirus.

RESULTS

Self-reported respondent knowledge of HNC was low, with 66.0% reporting that they were “not very” or “not at all” knowledgeable. This did not vary significantly with tobacco use (P = .92), education (P = .053), sex (P = .07), or race (P = .02). Regarding sites comprising HNC, 22.1% of respondents correctly identified throat cancer, 15.3% mouth cancer, and 2.0% cancer of the larynx, with 21.0% incorrectly identifying brain cancer as HNC. Regarding symptoms, 14.9% of respondents identified “red or white sores that do not heal,” 5.2% “sore throat,” 1.3% “swelling or lump in the throat,” and 0.5% “bleeding in the mouth or throat.” Smoking and chewing or spitting tobacco were identified by 54.5% and 32.7% of respondents as risk factors for mouth and throat cancer, respectively. Only 0.8% of respondents identified human papillomavirus (HPV) infection as a risk factor for mouth and throat cancer, but specific questioning revealed that 12.8% were aware of the association between HPV infection and throat cancer whereas 70.0% of respondents were aware of the vaccine targeting HPV.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE

Self-reported and objective measures indicate that few American adults know much about HNC including risk factors such as tobacco use and HPV infection and common symptoms. Strategies to improve public awareness and knowledge of signs, symptoms, and risk factors may decrease the disease burden of HNC and are important topics for future research.

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