How a Routine Dental Visit Saved My Life
In the spring of 2014, when I was 26 years old, my schedule was full: I was a full-time student working towards my Bachelor's degree in Human Resource Management, I had a full time job, and was planning my wedding. Needless to say, I was an incredibly busy person with a lot of positive exciting things in my future.
One day while brushing my teeth, I noticed that some white spots had developed on the left underside of my tongue. I wasn't terribly concerned because they weren't painful, and I had always been a very healthy person. Like, really healthy: I only remember having the flu once after childhood.
I knew I was due for my bi-annual routine dentist appointment in May, so I figured if the spots didn't go away, I'd just check with the dentist. It couldn't possibly be anything too serious.
When I went in for my dentist appointment, the spots didn't seem to have grown at all, so again, I remained unworried. My dentist suggested a biopsy just to be sure. I needed a wisdom tooth extracted as well, so to me it was no big deal to have this taken care of at the same time. I was referred to a dentist who could perform these procedures and I scheduled the appointment for a day in early June. I was nervous about the biopsy, not only because cancer is a terrifying word, but also because I had never had any sort of procedure done where I had to be given general anesthesia.
Thankfully, everything went smoothly. I was out of the office in under two hours and I was feeling pretty good. I put any nagging thoughts I had to the back of my mind. A few days of soft food and some Tylenol and I would be back to normal — or so I thought.
A Fateful Phone Call
Boy was I wrong. Two weeks later I got a call from the dentist. He told me they had received the results of my pathology report: it was pre-cancerous. He assured me that this was manageable and that, luckily, we had caught it before it was actually cancer. He referred me to a surgeon and I immediately scheduled my consultation.
My surgery was scheduled for August 28, 2014 at 7 a.m. My mom, my fiancé, and I had to be at the hospital by 6 a.m. for check-in and to prep for surgery. I was pretty nervous to say the least: The last time I had spent any time in the hospital as a patient was when I was born.
I woke up from surgery a few hours later and was taken to a recovery room, where I was given some pain medication and had an ice pack placed on my face. After spending some time in recovery, the nurses confirmed that all my stats were where they should be, and I was released from the hospital.
The first 24 hours after surgery weren't that bad. I slept a lot, ate a little soup and ice cream, and was in minimal pain (since I was still numb from surgery). Over the weekend however, once the medication started to wear off, the pain became much more significant.
After the surgery, the area where a portion of my tongue was removed left an open wound, so eating or drinking anything was incredibly painful. I was really only able to consume room-temperature water comfortably.
Combined with the pain, I also had an upset stomach, due to being on pain medication and not being able to eat anything. So I ended up taking off about a week of work, which is more than I expected to need. I kept telling myself to stay strong, it was almost over, and I'd go back to work and not have to worry about this anymore. It would be over soon.
I was wrong again. Two weeks after my surgery I got a call from my surgeon. He wanted me to come in so we could go over the pathology report from my surgery, and suggested I bring my mom and fiancé.
My stomach sank. They don't ask you to come in when everything looks good, and they don't ask you to bring your family. When we sat down in the office, he broke the news: The pathology report showed a tumor in the portion they extracted. This meant positive results for stage one squamous cell carcinoma, or more simply: oral cancer. I was stunned.
How could I have oral cancer? I never smoked or chewed tobacco. I brushed my teeth two, sometimes three times a day! He told us that it was likely they got everything in the first surgery, but there was no way to be positive without doing a second surgery to widen the margin around where the tumor was found.
The thought of going through another surgery completely crushed me. I couldn't keep it together any longer and I broke down. I had just started eating real food again a few days ago, and was starting to not be in constant pain. And now I need to go back for more?
An Education in Survival
I learned that, depending on when the cancer is found and how efficiently it is (or is not) removed, it can be life-threatening. Even when someone does survive, their life can be greatly impacted: Some survivors have had so much of their tongue removed that they can no longer eat solid foods, and have a very difficult time communicating with others verbally. Learning all of this, along with how much better the chances would be of the cancer not coming back if I had the second surgery, I knew it was my only real option.
This time, not only were they going to take more of my tongue, but in order to prevent any spreading should the cancer come back, they would be removing lymph nodes from my neck. This surgery would be much more invasive, and I would have to stay in the hospital for a few days.
My second surgery was scheduled for September 25, 2014 at 7 a.m. This time I'd have to take another month off of work for recovery. I was even more nervous this time — I'd never spent the night in the hospital before. But the surgery went well, and the incision on my neck was expertly planned to blend in with the creases that are naturally there. I spent four days in the hospital and was released home with the drainage tube still in my neck.
I was so thankful that this time around they stitched up my tongue, so I was able to consume more than just water. The week following the surgery I went back in to have the tube and stitches removed from my neck.
I spent the next four weeks drinking a lot of protein drinks and smoothies to try and keep myself full, and also gain the calories and nutrients I needed to heal and keep myself healthy. After a month at home I was finally given the OK to return to work.
I was so happy to start to get back to normal. But I would have to limit the amount I could talk because I was still sore, and after both surgeries I was missing almost 1/3 of my tongue. I had to go through both physical therapy and speech therapy sessions to help me recover.
Now, I think back on all that has changed. I finished school and started working in a very fulfilling job that utilizes my degree, and I can't wait to see where that takes me. Things didn't work out with the wedding plans, but that is just one more difficult thing I have overcome… and I am a better, stronger person for. My speech has improved to the point where most people who meet me for the first time don't notice the slight lisp I hear in myself. I have full mobility in my neck and the scar is barely visible.
Life Goes On
I still have regular scans and checkups that continue to come back all clear. I will be forever thankful to my surgeon and his team, all of whom have consistently treated me with kindness, respect, and genuine concern. I am also very grateful that I brought up the spots to my dentist in the first place.
Fortunately, we were able to manage and remove everything with surgery, and I did not have to undergo any chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Early detection saved me from that, and that is a huge reason why I feel passionate about sharing my story with others — and getting the word out there that oral cancer is now something that young people do need to be aware of. It's never far from my mind that because I've had cancer once, the likelihood of having it again may be higher. That is just more reason for me to stay diligent about taking care of myself.
Dear Doctor is very grateful to Brooke for allowing us to share her experience as an oral cancer survivor with our readers. A version of this story first appeared on the website mindbodygreen (www.mindbodygreen.com).