Oral, head, and neck cancers are on the rise. This year, an estimated 61,760 people (45,330 men and 16,430 women) will develop oral, head, and neck cancer.
Sadly, the treatment is often worse than the diagnosis—imagine not being able to speak, eat, or work. It is extremely debilitating for those who are on feeding tubes, those who have lost teeth or facial bones, or have severe side effects from radiation.
In honor of National Cancer Survivors Day (June 1), AAOSH would like to share the stories of three individuals who have survived oral, head, and neck cancers in the hopes that increased awareness, early detection, and collaborative healthcare will help save more lives.
Meet Amber Hill Young, 35.
She is a wife and mother of two young children: 9 and 16 months. During a routine dental visit, Amber was offered and accepted an advanced oral cancer examination that included a Velscope (oral cancer detection device) and X-rays. Though she had no outward visible signs, her dentist encouraged her to see a surgeon, who diagnosed her with a very rare type of clear cell cancer of the lower mandible—a strain of cancer so rare that she knows of only one other person in the US still surviving with it.
Amber’s tumor was removed and biopsied, and during subsequent surgery, Amber lost her entire lower mandible. She now has a prosthesis created from part of her scapula and titanium. She is currently undergoing extensive dental reconstruction, including implants and bridges. Despite having had a tracheotomy, feeding tube, and horrific pain for months, Amber’s outlook is positive. She is now OCC’s CBO (Chief Brand Officer) and an advocate for the Oral Cancer Cause Survivors Circle.
Meet Susan Myers Bell, 59.
Susan had excellent oral and overall health. She visited her dentist every six months. Susan’s first sign of an abnormality was a cyst on her neck in 2010. She had surgery to remove the cyst which after biopsy was diagnosed as cancer. She received daily radiation for six weeks. Two years later, an ulcer appeared on roof of her mouth near her left tonsil. It was biopsied, followed by proton radiation for 7 weeks plus daily chemo.
After that round of treatment, Susan followed her instinct, changed doctors, had a pandescopy by a cancer specialist at EVMS and discovered cancer cells were still present. In May 2014, she had her left tonsil removed along with a left neck dissection removing the left side of her palette and a small area on the back of her tongue. Her treatment also included cyberknife, and two types of chemo.
Susan’s advice: If you have cancer or even a pre-cancer or suspicious area, get a second opinion from a specialist. How would her life have been different if she had seen her current specialist three years ago when she had an enlarged lymph node in her neck? A specialist may have found the primary site and removed her tonsil three years earlier, and she would not have had a recurrence.
In spite of all Susan has been through, she remains optimistic and joyful that she has progressed this far. She is an inspiration and encouragement to her family, medical team, friends and other head/neck cancer survivors….she is also a miracle by every sense of the word.
Meet Dr. Jeff Blackburn, 57.
Jeff is a practicing dentist in Midlothian, Virginia. Jeff was diagnosed and treated for cancer of the tongue and lymph nodes of the neck region. Jeff’s treatment consisted of seven weeks of intense radiation and chemotherapy. He suffered from extreme pain and lost his voice, taste, and a considerable amount of weight. He had to feed himself through a tube surgically inserted into his stomach. To this day, Jeff still suffers from xerostomia, pain, and nerve damage, but he considers himself lucky compared to others he has treated.
Now the go-to dentist in the Richmond area for cancer patients, Jeff has established an excellent relationship with radiation oncologists, ENTs, hospitals, and their staffs, who often refer patients to him to prepare them dentally before cancer therapy can begin. When a cancer patient calls his office, he always offers to see them that day—routinely working extra hours to prepare them quickly for their treatment. Jeff now speaks publicly about his experience as both doctor and patient at various dental meetings.
Oral Cancer Cause: Connecting Cancer Survivors
At Oral Cancer Cause (OCC), a 501(c) 3 non-profit, we have found most oral/head & neck cancer survivors yearn to get to know their fellow survivors. They know the fear of recurrence, depression, and even body image and self-esteem issues post treatment/surgery. With this in mind and knowing how important these relationships are to the survivors, OCC is introducing its new initiative, Oral Cancer Cause Survivors Circle (OCCSC), led by Amber Young, one-year oral cancer survivor mentioned above.
It is estimated that 70% of cancer survivors experience depression at some time. A 10-year follow up study on cancer patients found that symptoms of depression were associated with a shorter survival time. We hope that connecting cancer patients and survivors with an uplifting mentor for emotional support can help reduce the feelings of depression. If you, as a health care professional, suspect your patient is experiencing depression after a cancer diagnosis or treatment, and could benefit from a mentor, please be proactive and discuss this with them. You may just extend their life.
Linda Miles will be speaking with Dr. Kyle Ash at the 6th Annual AAOSH Scientific Session in Orlando, Florida. Please visit the event page to learn more and register.