Supporting the Head and Neck Cancer Community

A Challenging Disease for Patients and their Carers

Head and neck cancers are an area of unmet medical need. They also place a substantial physical and emotional burden on patients because of facial disfiguration, trouble eating, swallowing, speaking, and even difficulty breathing. In many cases, this can lead to significant mental health challenges for patients due to the stigma associated with this particular kind of cancer.

For family carers, who play a critical role throughout the treatment journey, taking care of head and neck cancer patients is an arduous and distressing process. Family carers often take on tasks that require nursing or technical skills – tracheostomy care, tube feeding, pain management – leading to daily disruption of routine, less time and energy for work, and impacted social activities and relationships.

All this means we need to do better, much better, for patients and their family carers.  That is why it’s so important that we all take a stand during Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month.

Encouraging Early Diagnosis to Improve Health Outcomes

A key focus during Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month is educating individuals about the various risk factors for these cancers and encouraging more people to get screened. Head and neck cancers are easier to treat when caught early, with an 80% survival rate[1]. However, right now, around 60% of cases are diagnosed at the locally advanced stage, meaning the cancer has spread to surrounding areas. Once reaching that stage, or beyond, the cancer is considerably more difficult to treat. In fact, more than half of patients see their cancer progress within two years of completing standard of care. These numbers clearly show that we need to do more to raise awareness of screening.

We regret, therefore, that head and neck cancers did not make it to the updated list of cancers to be more systematically screened, as part of the Council Recommendation on strengthening prevention through early detection adopted in December 2022. 

Nonetheless, hope remains, thanks to a variety of campaigns led around the world on head and neck cancers screenings. For example, we are honored to be the founding sponsor and continued supporter of the trailblazing Make Sense Campaign, organized by the European Head & Neck Society. Celebrating its 10th year in 2022, this bold initiative is now active in over 20 countries. Over the past decade, the campaign has supported the screening of over 118,000 people across 1,805 clinics in Europe and beyond: those are results we can all be proud of. The Head & Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) is also doing important work to help more people get screened early, improving outcomes and saving countless lives. Through its Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness (OHANCA) program, the HNCA facilitates hundreds of free screening events across the world. We are proud to join ardent advocates such as the HNCA and support their efforts. This year we are pleased to be title sponsor of the HNCA’s inaugural ‘Move-A-Thon’, which helps to raise awareness about head and neck cancers, highlight the importance of early detection, and raise funds to support patients and advance research.

Driving Innovation to Address Unmet Medical Need

As a company, we are committed to advancing research that can help head and neck cancer patients, particularly those with locally advanced forms of the condition which require more complex treatments. Notwithstanding the unmet need, there have not been any meaningful new treatment options developed for these significantly at-risk patients in decades.

Through our research, we are exploring new mechanisms with the potential to improve care. We are excited to contribute to the scientific knowledge on head and neck cancer treatments and are driven by our endeavors to make a meaningful difference in the lives of patients and their loved ones who are affected by these devastating conditions.

Policymakers – Don’t Forget the Patients

Innovation cannot happen without the framework to bring breakthrough treatments to patients.  Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, unveiled in February 2021, is a flagship health initiative structured around four key action areas: prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, improving quality of life. The Plan sets out a new EU approach to cancer prevention, treatment and care aimed at tackling the entire disease pathway, from prevention and ensuring quality care for existing cancer patients to ensuring support for survivors.

The Beating Cancer Plan is a roadmap to drive innovation for patients. With so much going on in the world – including wars, high inflation, and budget pressures – it is easy to get distracted and forget about why we do what we do in oncology: to prolong and save the lives of patients. Let’s have the courage to continue down that path, moving forward and recognizing that, while the world continues to change around us, we will continue to put patients and their carers first.

This April and beyond, we will continue advocating for head and neck cancer patients and working as a committed partner with the diverse community of researchers, patients, survivors, and family carers. Through our collaboration we hope to see more people improve their health outcomes through early detection and, for those diagnosed at later stages, to present new treatment options that can extend and enhance their lives.


[1] National Cancer Institute, Head and Neck Cancer Fact Sheet (2023). Accessed April 2023.

Yariv Hefez

Senior Vice President and Head of the Global Oncology Business Franchise at Merck. Yariv has more than 20 years’...
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