Head and neck cancer surgeon brings future treatment vision for cancer patients

April 27, 2022
Dr. Greer Albergotti
Dr. Greer Albergotti is excited to join the head and neck cancer team at Hollings after graduating from medical school at MUSC in 2012. Photo by Clif Rhodes

W. Greer Albergotti, M.D., assistant professor of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, is driven by a multidisciplinary patient-centered approach to treating patients with head and neck cancers. This passion is one of the reasons he was drawn back to MUSC in March to work with new leadership at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and MUSC’s Head and Neck Program.

Albergotti said he’s excited to join the ranks of a well-established network of head and neck specialists working under the leadership of Robert Labadie, M.D., Ph.D., the new chair of Otolaryngology, and Jason Newman, M.D., who is directing the strategic growth of cancer programs across the state for Hollings and serving as director of the Division of Head and Neck Oncology in the Department of Otolaryngology.

Treating head and neck cancers is very challenging due to the complex anatomical location, he said. “As head and neck surgeons, we truly become like a primary care physician to this patient population. We get to know the patients and their families, as we see them every few months during the treatment process. The patient-physician relationship is something that I really value,” said Albergotti, who returned to his alma mater after being on faculty at the Medical College of Georgia for the past four years.

In 2012, Albergotti completed his medical doctorate training at MUSC, graduating Alpha Omega Alpha. Today, he is a part of MUSC’s head and neck cancer team that is creating tomorrow’s improved standard of care. “Coming back to MUSC has always been a goal. MUSC’s multidisciplinary approach to treating complex head and neck cancers is a national example. Now, I am excited to build upon that strong foundation.”

April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, which reminds people about the lifesaving power of cancer screenings. The oral cavity and the throat are the most common locations for head and neck cancers to develop. The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for oral cavity and throat cancers in the U.S. for 2022 are about 66,000 new cases and around 15,000 deaths.

“Coming back to MUSC has always been a goal. MUSC’s multidisciplinary approach to treating complex head and neck cancers is a national example. Now, I am excited to build upon that strong foundation.”
— Dr. Greer Albergotti

Before the 1980s, head and neck cancers were mainly caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Since that time, there has been a major increase in cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). “Unfortunately, HPV has increased cancer rates in younger, healthier individuals. The good news is that head and neck cancers that are caused by HPV tend to be more treatable, and patients tend to respond better to treatments, which are constantly evolving,” said Albergotti.

“Early detection clearly saves lives. Anyone with a new sore, lump or pain in the head and neck region that lasts for more than a couple of weeks should get it checked by their primary care physician or dentist,” he said. “HPV-related throat cancers may cause symptoms like a persistent sore throat, hoarseness, enlarged lymph nodes or pain when swallowing.”

Improving the patient care experience is a theme for MUSC’s new head and neck cancer team. Albergotti brings his four-year experience as an attending surgeon at the Medical College of Georgia as well as his robust research portfolio.

Albergotti’s past clinical research focused on studying ways to minimize the long-term functional deficits that patients often are left with after treatments. He hopes to use MUSC’s research-driven atmosphere to continue studying how best to minimize the effects from surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. He said that he often thinks about the best way to do this from a patient-centric approach.

“Treating head and neck cancers involves radiation oncology, medical oncology, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, nurse navigators, nurses in the clinic, nurses on the floor and many others. Patients interact with an unbelievable amount of people. The exciting part about where we are right now, with the growth happening on the team, is even though the groundwork has been laid with a fantastic team approach, we really get the opportunity to reimagine it from the ground up,” said Albergotti.

Albergotti envisions identifying and filling the gaps that create barriers to patient care. He said that patient travel time, especially for patients who live in rural regions, can create hurdles for patients. “I am interested in making progress with telemedicine and partnering with physicians in other parts of the state.”

“At MUSC, I am surrounded by doctors with many different perspectives and experiences — but we all have a unified mindset of trying to do better for the patients.”
— Dr. Greer Albergotti

However, integrating telemedicine and other newer modalities that were developed during the pandemic raises challenges. “A lot of our patient care is driven by advanced imaging tools and in-person checkups, which cannot be done remotely. We are continuing to look for ways to provide equal or better care by telemedicine to avoid having patients make unnecessary trips to our Charleston clinic offices,” said Albergotti.

Streamlining the patient approach may be one solution to that challenge. “The multidisciplinary treatment approach is so important, yet that also means that there’s a lot of providers and appointments to get the optimal care. We should work to streamline as many appointments as possible in a single day, especially for people who are coming from far away. Once treatment is done, it is more feasible for patients to have surveillance visits performed remotely instead of having them drive to Charleston every few months.”

As a physician-scientist, Albergotti places a high value on working at an academic medical center. “At MUSC, I am surrounded by doctors with many different perspectives and experiences — but we all have a unified mindset of trying to do better for the patients. Even though we have made great strides in effectively treating head and neck cancers, there are always things that we can do to improve the quality of life for patients.”

When Albergotti is not tending to patients, he can most likely be found enjoying the Charleston outdoors. Saltwater fishing, running and enjoying the city’s great restaurants are some of his favorite pastimes.

“I feel lucky to be able to live in a city that I love while working to improve outcomes for head and neck cancer patients,” he said.

In his short time on faculty at MUSC, Albergotti said that the experience has already exceeded his expectations. “The opportunities here are both daunting and exciting. Any time you’re starting something new, there is a lot of opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes and reimagine the process.”

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer

If you experience any of the following signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, talk with your doctor or dentist.

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Bad mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Numbness or weakness in the head and neck area
  • Pain or difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Jaw pain
  • Blood in the saliva or mucus discharge (phlegm)
  • Frequent nose bleeds and/or unusual nasal discharge
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Double vision
  • Loosening of teeth or dentures that no longer fit
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Repeated ear pain or infection
  • Unexplained fatigue