Head and neck cancer team celebrates expanded space to promote collaborative care

March 31, 2023
a woman in a red suit gestures toward a red wall behind her
Wendy Wellin, wearing the same red suit she wore to the opening of the first phase of the clinic in 2015, gestures toward the wall as she talks about her love of the color red, which gives the clinic its distinctive look. Photos by Clif Rhodes

Wendy Wellin has an easy way to gauge the growing impact of head and neck cancer. It happens when people see her out and about – at the grocery store, at the gym, on the street – and ask, “Aren’t you the lady in the red suit on the 10th floor?”

She is.

A portrait of her and her late husband, Keith Wellin – or Mr. Wonderful, as she called him – hangs in the Wendy and Keith Wellin Head and Neck Clinic on the 10th floor of Rutledge Tower, where MUSC Hollings Cancer Center providers and researchers care for people with these cancers.

In the portrait, she’s wearing a chic red suit that plays off the bold red walls of the clinic.

“I like red, and I got a lot of grief about McDonald’s when we were doing this, which was for three years before 2015,” she said, referencing the initial opening of the clinic.

On Wednesday, she was back in the same red suit to celebrate the expansion of the clinic, which now occupies the entire 10th floor. The clinic gained more than 7,000 square feet, allowing for new exam rooms, infusion rooms, space for research teams and the ability to conduct telehealth visits, when appropriate, to better serve people across the state.

Jason Newman, M.D., director of the Division of Head and Neck Oncology in the Department of Otolaryngology, said the clinic space is an answer to the “desperate need for better access to head and neck cancer care.”

Head and neck cancer increasing

Head and neck cancers are on the rise. A confluence of factors is responsible for the increase. The traditional risk factors are smoking and alcohol use, and South Carolina’s smoking rate remains stubbornly high at almost 18%.

Sun exposure, too, is a factor.

“We live in a part of the country that has much higher rates of sun exposure with people who tend to work in jobs that have higher levels of sun exposure than in other parts of the country,” Newman said.

Although skin cancer isn’t technically classified as head and neck cancer, the head and neck group is typically the team that manages advanced and regionally metastatic skin cancers on the head and neck, especially because patients with this diagnosis will need multidisciplinary medical care.

five people pose behind a red ribbon while the woman in the center wields large golden scissors 
The head and neck team was all smiles as they cut the ribbon on the long-awaited expansion. From left, Dr. Robert Labadie, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, Dr. Jason Newman, director of the Division of Head and Neck Oncology in the Department of Otolaryngology, Wendy Wellin, Dr. Raymond DuBois, director of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, and Dr. David Zaas, CEO of MUSC Health Charleston Division.

Head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), in particular, are on the rise. The American Cancer Society reports an increase of 2.8% per year between 2015 and 2019 in oropharyngeal cancers, or cancers in the middle part of the throat, in men caused by HPV.

Finally, the Hollings clinic is seeing more patients simply because of the expansion of MUSC Health into different areas of the state. Newman, who joined MUSC in March 2022, said the clinic has seen a 10% increase in patients in just that time period.

As MUSC Health expands, the idea is to provide top-notch care in local communities so people in rural or underserved areas of the state don’t need to travel long distances. Head and neck cancer, though, is a bit of a different beast.

“I strongly believe that excellent care can be delivered close to home,” Newman said. "At the same time, the more complicated the care gets, the harder it is to deliver in our smaller communities.”

Multidisciplinary team is the ‘pit crew’ of cancer care

At the ribbon cutting event, Newman alluded to the many specialties that come together to provide head and neck cancer care.

“This is not a one- or two- or five- or 10-person show. This is a very large group of people. Some days I wake up and think how thankful I am for the size of the group who came together to make this happen,” he said.

The team includes people from surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, nursing, physician assistants, speech language pathology, nutrition, maxillofacial prosthodontics and more.

“It’s just amazing how many people are involved,” he said.

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., director of Hollings, agreed with Newman’s assessment.

“The long-needed upgrade and changes to the clinic have made it a much better place to care for our patients and also allow our physicians to do their job much more efficiently and effectively,” DuBois said. “Cancer and its impact on the patient and their loved ones are just too daunting of a health challenge to be done without a team effort.”

"Cancer and its impact on the patient and their loved ones are just too daunting of a health challenge to be done without a team effort."

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D.
director, MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

The new space will provide room for all of these people to better collaborate as they develop a care plan for each individual.

“When a patient walks in with a head and neck cancer, if you look through the list of things in their life that it's going to have an impact on, there's everything from financial toxicity to just literally not being able to eat and swallow, not being able to talk, having a change in your physical appearance, needing multimodal therapy like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and needing to be medically optimized to undergo all of these things,” Newman said. Medical optimization refers to getting any other medical conditions under control as much as possible before surgery.

“That takes a village of human beings to kind of descend upon a patient and quickly get as many of those things in order as possible, because unlike some other medical problems, there's a ticking clock that's moving pretty quickly,” he continued. “I feel like sometimes we're the pit crew. The car comes in and you have to rapidly get everything done. It'd be nice to have more time and it'd be great to give patients and their families more education, but you have to get it done quickly.”

The new space also includes two rooms with telehealth capabilities. Newman anticipates these will be used for initial consultations with patients outside the Charleston area – visits when he would typically order tests to begin the diagnostic process.

“Then, when they physically come into MUSC, they've had all of that done. They're not coming in just for me to order a CAT scan, order a biopsy, and then they have to come back two weeks later after they get that all done. So it's really a way to help optimize care, to deliver care to a patient population that might be spread across the state,” he said.

A terrible disease

In October 2008, the Wellins had no idea how “a little sore throat” would change their lives.

“We really thought he just had a sore throat, and it turned out to be a tumor,” Wellin shared with the group assembled at the ribbon cutting. “Everybody took very good care of Mr. Wonderful and added years to his life.”

Keith Wellin died in 2014.

His wife said she is coming across more and more people with head and neck cancer, including her friend Doug Larion, who came to celebrate the new space.

“Doug is sort of a miracle person at this point,” Wellin said.

people chat at a reception 
Wendy Wellin's friend Doug Larion, who attended the reception with his wife, Jayne, thanked the head and neck team for the care it provides and the positive attitudes of everyone in the group.

Larion came to the clinic for mouth sores that turned out to be cancerous. He noted that during his career, his work entailed dealing with employee attitudes.

“I have to say, the attitude here from the top on down is remarkable,” he said, thanking Newman, the nurses, physician assistants and everyone else on the team who provided care.

DuBois credited Wellin for her ongoing commitment to improving cancer care for everyone, even years after her husband’s death.

“Wendy and her family have been constantly engaged and dedicated to making a difference in the lives of our patients and the families affected by this terrible disease, and we’re here today to celebrate that,” he said.

Robert Labadie, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, thanked Wellin for her patience in the long wait between the opening of phase 1 and phase 2 of the clinic. But, he said, it has been worth it.

“The patients rave about it,” he said.

Wellin ended with a message for people to seek care if they notice anything that seems off. “Anyone who has a sore throat, something bumpy, you come right here and see somebody,” she said.