Clinical, Research, and Patient Perspectives Shared During 2023 GSDM World Head and Neck Cancer Day “Lunch and Learn”


The Boston University Head and Neck Cancer Program hosted a “Lunch and Learn” on World Head and Neck Cancer Day in July to spark conversation about the disease.  

The annual event brings together clinicians, researchers, current patients, and cancer survivors to share their perspectives on the disease to promote expanding research and improving care.  

Head and neck cancers are often diagnosed in later stages and have a poor survival rate; additionally, there are few effective biomarkers or treatments, according to Barbara Pyke, GSDM associate director of research. 

 “In 2023, almost 67,000 Americans will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer,” Pyke said. “This disease is the seventh most common cancer worldwide, accounting for over 800,000 new cases annually. Events like the ‘Lunch and Learn’ and the Boston Head and Neck Cancer Symposium held on October 6 are opportunities to learn from each other and to catalyze efforts to prevent, treat, and cure this disease.” 

In her welcoming remarks at the event, Dr. Maria Kukuruzinska, GSDM associate dean for research and professor of translational dental medicine, said it was an honor to be able to bring together three guest speakers who could share their insights on head and neck cancer from clinical, research, and patient points of view.  

“Head and neck cancer is a tremendously disfiguring and debilitating malignancy, and unlike other cancers, like lung and breast cancer, this cancer is definitely understudied, and it’s not really replete with many treatment strategies that are effective and there is still a problem with its recurrence,” Kukuruzinska said. “[We] have to be aware of what etiological factors drive this disease initiation and progression to aggressive state.”  

As the voice of the clinical viewpoint, Dr. Vikki Noonan, director of GSDM’s Division of Oral & Maxillofacial Pathology and clinical professor of oral & maxillofacial pathology and oral & maxillofacial surgery, focused on her remarks on oral squamous cell carcinoma and precursor lesions, which make up over 90 percent of oral cancer diagnoses.  

Noonan said she wanted to raise awareness about the “sneaky” ways oral cancer can present at non-high-risk sites. She encouraged clinicians to be vigilant in their screenings and to be aware of discoloration, surface texture abnormalities, and sharp demarcations.  

“I hope that my brief remarks will just serve as a reminder for those of us who see clinical patients to remain vigilant because we all know how important it is to identify oral cancer as early as possible and [make an] effort to minimize morbidity and mortality,” Noonan said.  

Dr. Stefano Monti, associate professor of medicine and biostatistics at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, shared the research perspective and described using an in-silico (computational) multiomics approach to oral cancer biology that combines both clinical and basic science to develop advanced methods of prevention and care. Monti discussed ongoing correlational analysis experiments examining relationships between a head and neck cancer patient’s phenotypes (observable physical characteristics) and their underlying molecular genotypes.  

“The endpoint is to basically get insights into the causes for the disease, how to improve prevention, how to develop biomarkers, both prognostic or diagnostic, and how to improve that,” Monti said.  

Mary Lou Rossano-Collier, a head and neck cancer survivor of 16 years, got emotional when sharing her experience with left tonsil cancer. Today, she is a member of the Boston Head and Neck Cancer Community Advisory Board, creating public awareness about cancer patients’ emotional and physical journeys during cancer treatment. She also mentors current patients undergoing treatment for various cancers for Beth Israel Deaconess Plymouth, Massachusetts General Hospital, the New York-based non-profit organization Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer (SPOHNC), and individuals in various states.  

Rossano-Collier was diagnosed on Friday, September 7, 2007 – and remembers it as the day her life changed. She said she was terrified when she learned that she would have to undergo seven weeks of chemo and radiation treatments.  

Her recovery process was agonizing with gastrostomy tube (a medical device that brings nutrition directly to the stomach) difficulties and painful burns on her body, but she said her kind and compassionate doctors helped her enormously. Nowadays – especially after caring for her husband during his right tonsil cancer treatment years later – she is passionate about advocating for patients.  

“I just want to help one person not experience what I went through,” Rossano-Collier said. “Any big things I’m doing? No, just little things: just talking to the doctors, let them know there is a lot to it. It’s not just about the last pill or the last treatment. This is something that goes on for a lifetime.”  


By Rachel Grace Philipson