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Melbourne’s leading head and neck cancer experts urge patients not to delay diagnosis and treatment

World Head and Neck Cancer Day a timely reminder that cancer doesn’t stop during COVID-19

  • Leading head and neck surgeons and radiation oncologists from GenesisCare and St Vincent’s Hospital are urging Victorians not to ignore early signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer
  • Warning comes amidst a drop in cancer screening and treatment referrals during COVID-19
  • Head and neck cancers associated with HPV infection are on the rise
  • July 27 marks World Head and Neck Cancer Day which aims to raise awareness of head and neck cancers and highlight the steps Australians can take to reduce their risk

Melbourne, Victoria – Doctors from Melbourne’s leading head and neck cancer treatment centre at GenesisCare and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne have issued a warning against patients delaying diagnosis and treatment for head and neck cancers.Data from Sydney and Melbourne has reportedly shown a 25-to-40 per cent drop in new patient referrals to tertiary cancer centres, sparking fears patients are avoiding seeking critical care and treatment due to COVID-19.1

Head and neck cancer refers to cancers that begin in the cells that line the moist mucosal surfaces, including the mouth, nose and sinuses, throat and voice box. Cases in Australia have increased 74% over the past 30 years, with 4,565 cases in 2016 up from 2,610 in 1986.2 Early diagnosis and treatment are key to improving survival rates and quality of life of patients with head and neck cancer, with survival linked to the size of the primary tumour at detection. Associate Professor Bernard Lyons, Head and Neck Surgeon at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, said: “Across the board we have seen quite a significant drop in new cancer diagnoses and referrals which is particularly disconcerting for cancers like head and neck cancer where we know early detection is critical for survival.”

Head and neck cancers cause a variety of fairly non-specific symptoms – tongue ulcers, sore throat, hoarse voice, lump in the neck – but the key is when these symptoms don’t resolve after 3-4 weeks, patients should be referred to a head and neck specialist.

“We strongly urge anyone who may be experiencing signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer and has one or more of the known risk factors to visit their doctor for assessment,” said A/Prof Lyons.
“There are a myriad of risk factors that can increase your risk of head and neck cancer, including tobacco and alcohol use which are responsible for over 50% of cancers.”

“A less known but important risk factor is HPV infection, which has increased dramatically over the past 20 years and disproportionately impacts younger non-smoking males (and to a lesser extent females) in their 40s and 50s.”

Radiation therapy is one of three primary frontline treatments for head and neck cancer and is required in 75 per cent of all head and neck cancer patients.

Professor June Corry, Radiation Oncologist at GenesisCare St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne specialising in head and neck cancer, said: “Through our partnership with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, patients are able to access a fully comprehensive head and neck cancer service, including diagnostics, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, all under the one roof.

“In addition to accessing leading specialists in surgery, medical oncology and radiation oncology, patients are supported by an allied health team, including speech pathology, dietetics, social work, psychology and nursing, who all contribute to the patients successful journey through their cancer treatment and subsequent optimal cancer outcomes.
“A multidisciplinary approach to head and neck cancer, where surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation therapists work closely and collaborate with one another, is key to providing timely evidenced-based care for patients, particularly in the current COVID-19 climate.

“In response to the escalating COVID-19 health crisis in Melbourne, we are ensuring our head and neck cancer patients are still able to receive the highest quality cancer care in a safe environment through the implementation of all possible infection control measures and by adhering to national and international guidelines on cancer management.” Each year, an estimated 5,212 new cases of head and neck cancer will be diagnosed in Australia (3,807 males and 1,405 females), with a five-year survival rate at approximately 71%.3


  1. Newcastle Herald, 27 June, Hunter oncologists say new cancer referrals down after drop in GP visits and screening clinic closures during COVID-19, Link
  2. Cancer data in Australia, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020, Link
  3. Head and neck cancer in Australia statistics, 2019, Cancer Australia, Link