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She sits in the exam chair with a list of questions, her gray hair falling out from beneath her hat. I remember her from last year. At the time, I had spent time reassuring her that everything was fine and that she was at no risk for oral cavity cancer. "I just feel so much better when I hear you say that!" she tells me again. "You just never know. I’m certain that Michael Douglas never suspected he would get cancer, either!"
Each May, we host a Head and Neck Cancer Screening event along with dozens of other hospitals and cancer centers around the country. In the early days, our nurse, Kathy, and I would set up our equipment in the corner of the sales floor at the former Small Stones store near the campus. The first year, we screened about 20 people. It was always fun (seeing healthy people always is), but we never identified anyone with cancer. The events are really a moment of community. Mostly, we answered questions about related (and very unrelated) topics.
That is not surprising, actually. Head and neck cancer is rare, with only 40,000 cases per year in the US. In addition, people who attend free public screenings tend to that take pretty good care of themselves and are not in the demographic most at risk for these cancers.
Interest in our head and neck cancer screening event exploded this year. Michael Douglas, the most famous recent survivor of head and neck cancer was on Oprah two weeks ago and spread the word about the need for people to undergo screening, telling people to go to the website and call for an appointment at their local screening site.
Before the Oprah show, we had about 10 people registered for the event. Within two hours, there were 96. By noon the next day, we had 90 more on the waiting list. We cut off the list after that. It was, as they say, crazy. Our people whose phone numbers were linked to the event can confirm that the potential impact of the media is remarkable. Oprah’s support for this cause has, for the moment, raised awareness all over the country.
Of the 100 registered, about 75 actually showed up to undergo screening, learn about dental issues, talk with experts about hearing loss, and discover a bit more about head and neck cancer. I do not think we identified any new cancers but more than a few people smiled when they were assured that everything looked fine. And almost everyone told us that it was all because of Oprah.