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Finding ways to improve quality of life for patients with head and neck cancers

A Toronto-based surgeon-scientist will use a recently granted Terry Fox New Investigator Award to study how symptoms associated with current therapies affect the lives of patients with head and neck cancers.

Dr. Antoine Eskander (Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the Sunnybrook Research Institute) will receive $450,000 over three years from the Terry Fox Research Institute and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to conduct his study.

“This research project will look at how cancer and treatment-related symptoms affect everything from survival to the cost of care to unplanned hospital visits for these patients,” says Dr. Eskander.

The award will allow Dr. Eskander to deploy a mixed-method approach to map the symptom burden of head and neck cancers. This includes mining quantitative data collected by cancer centres while also interviewing patients and their caregivers to better understand their cancer experience.

He will also receive mentorship from Dr. Natalie Coburn (Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Sunnybrook Research Institute), who leads a CIHR project that is evaluating survival, patient-reported outcomes and costs for advanced gastrointestinal cancers.

“I am confident that our research team and Dr. Eskander will both benefit greatly from this new collaboration,” says Dr. Coburn. “As a surgeon-scientist that also helps shape policy in Ontario, I also know that this work is needed and will have significant health policy and resource allocation implications.”

Recent studies have shown that patients diagnosed with head and neck cancers have the worst symptom burden of any cancer and are at a higher risk of visiting the emergency room due to treatment-related side effects. This high symptom burden is believed to affect survival and quality of life for patients while also placing a large financial burden on health care systems that foot the bill for those visits.

According to Dr. Eskander, this problem will worsen in the next few years, as the number of human papilloma virus (HPV)-related head and neck cancers continues to rise, changing the demographic of the disease, which is increasingly younger, healthier and with higher cure-rates.

In this context, Dr. Eskander says that mapping its effects and treatment-induced symptoms will help create patient-centric interventions that improve quality of life and survival.

“We have a strong suspicion that a patient’s symptom burden is indicative of their health care use, quality of life and survival, so if we can figure out what their trajectory might be based on what symptoms they experience, then maybe we can anticipate and find better ways to help these patients,” says Dr. Eskander.

Read more about all the 2020 Terry Fox New Investigator Award recipients here.

Mentoring program: An evaluation of survival, patient-reported outcomes and costs for advanced gastrointestinal cancer

Mentor: Dr. Natalie Coburn