Photo by Curtis Dahl
By Joana Breckner
A routine visit to my ADA dentist saved my life. I am a four-year survivor of oral cancer. I am married, 47 years old and the mother of two girls, ages 10 and 12. I am not a smoker or drinker, and have been in good health my entire life. In 2000, during a teeth cleaning, my dentist, Dr. Phillip Sacks in Woodland Hills, California, discovered precancerous white spots on my tongue.
The biopsy was benign, but for the next seven years I was monitored by Dr. Sacks and my doctor. My first tumor, small and contained, was removed in 2007. Four years later, my cancer returned. I underwent a 10-hour surgery removing half my tongue, which was rebuilt with grafts from my forearm, followed up by radiation and chemotherapy. A year later cancer reoccurred on my jugular vein. More surgery, more chemotherapy, more radiation.
Four years later, my story has a happy ending, and by sharing it I hope to raise awareness of oral cancer and screenings. Traditionally, individuals with the highest risk of developing oral cancer have been those who smoke, use tobacco or drink alcohol heavily, but exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) is now a significant factor. The fastest-growing oral cancer population is young nonsmokers with HPV.
Currently there is no national program for oral cancer screenings. The American Dental Association states that “just doing ‘opportunistic’ cancer screenings … would yield tens of thousands of opportunities to catch oral cancer in its early stages.” According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, when oral cancer is found at early stages of development, patients have an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.
Here are easy, potentially lifesaving steps to take charge of your oral health.
- Be sure your dentist or qualified hygienist “cleans and screens” at every routine visit. This visual and manual screening takes less than five minutes
- There is a strong link between HPV and oral cancer. Ask your children’s pediatrician and dentist for more information about the HPV vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends boys and girls receive the HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12.
- If a sore throat or swallowing problems persist for more than two weeks, contact your doctor.
I am alive because of early detection and lifesaving surgeries and treatments. My quality of life is excellent, and I am able to eat, drink, taste and live pain-free. A scar running from my lip to my chin and a slight speech impediment remind me of cancer every day. Like many survivors, I am searching for my new normal. However, I am alive, loving life and grateful—especially for my conscientious dentist, Dr. Sacks.