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Yale-New Haven’s ‘Checkup from the Neck Up’ to screen for cancer

April 21, 2014
by Ed Stannard

Michael Maze makes his living with his voice, so a tumor running from his ear to near his shoulder was particularly frightening.

He was a smoker, a major cause of the disease, but that had nothing to do with it. He got head and neck cancer from a virus. To detect head and neck cancers, Yale-New Haven Hospital will hold a free screening this week, “Checkup from the Neck Up,” that takes only five minutes.

A DJ for several radio stations, Maze “did what any typical guy would do” when he found the growing tumor in 2012: “Nothing.”

As it grew bigger, “I chose to pretend it wasn’t there.” He finally went to the doctor when a friend pushed him to go.

Feeling “terrified” at the time, he said “one of the reasons I was most afraid is I make my living with my voice. … My career was going to be over.”

Not wanting to damage his vocal cords, doctors chose radiation and chemotherapy — “a treatment plan specially designed for me” — which eliminated the 1.75-inch-long tumor. Maze, 44, was fortunate. He has shows on WWFS (102.7 in New Haven), WMRQ (104.1 in Hartford). He formerly had a nationally syndicated radio show, “The Modern Buzz” and appeared on MTV’s “All Things Rock.”

“I’m a lucky man,” Maze said. “I was a fool to sit there and do nothing.” Altogether, he underwent 38 radiation treatments and eight rounds of chemo. “Every weekday I did radiation so I was at Smilow (Cancer Hospital) Monday to Friday.”

The radiation burned his skin, but “I saw some of the sickest people. They’re all brave, brave warriors that are fighting … this fight every single day. … Gosh, I’ve got it so much easier than some people.”

One of his biggest reasons to keep fighting was his daughter, Cindy, now 15. When his hair started to fall out, “we turned it into a head-shaving party and it was really cool.” They managed to “laugh and laugh through all of it. … If you can’t laugh at your chemo, what’s the point?”

What Maze had was squamous cell head and neck cancer, a catchall term for various cancers such as tongue, larynx, throat or palate, said Dr. Wendell G. Yarbrough, director of the head and neck disease center at Smilow. “Those organs are very close together inside your mouth or your throat,” he said.

“With Michael, he got pretty standard therapy for his tumor, which was an advanced-stage tumor,” Yarbrough said. “He had some large neck nodes.” With such tumors it’s difficult to tell how they’ll respond to treatment.

The cause of Maze’s cancer is human papilloma virus, which accounts for about a quarter of the 50,000 head and neck squamous cell cancers in the United States each year. That’s why he was “lucky”: HPV-caused cancers respond to therapy better than those caused by smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or other causes.

HPV vaccine, originally prescribed for girls to prevent cervical cancer, is now recommended for girls and boys from 9 to 26 years old. The cancer is actually twice or three times more likely to occur in men than women, Yarbrough said. The vaccine is ineffective once cancer has started, however.

The symptoms of head and neck cancers are “a lump or hump in the neck, a hoarse voice, bleeding from the mouth and a sore throat that doesn’t get better or a sore in the mouth or throat that doesn’t get better.,” Yarbrough said.

If you have any symptoms it’s best to get screened, and that will be easy this week when Yale-New Haven Hospital holds two screenings: 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday at the McGivney Center for Cancer Care on the Saint Raphael campus, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday in the East Pavilion special events area on the main campus.

To register for the free screening, call 203-688-2000; walk-ins are welcome.

Submitted by Renee Gaudette on April 21, 2014