Oral cancer is being diagnosed at near epidemic proportions, and in many cases it strikes those people who would least suspect it.
At 28, Jessica Tar appeared young and healthy. That is why she was floored to find out she had oral cancer; a small tumor was growing on her tongue.
“It was just this raised area, and pain from time to time,” Tar says.
They are symptoms many of may have ignored, but thankfully Jessica did not. Her cancer was caught early and had not spread.
She went to Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Dr. Jatin Shah for treatment. He recommended a surgery to remove part of her tongue, an aggressive treatment that threatened her career as an actress and singer.
“They tell you your mouth is going to be rearranged. The tip of your tongue, where you thought it once was, it won’t be there anymore,” Tar says.
Jessica Tar was anxious to get back to work, so she underwent extensive speech therapy. The hardest thing for her to pronounce was the letter S.
Jessica knew she want to work hard at it and she had the ultimate motivation, a specific name in mind for her daughter on the way.
“I said to my speech therapist if I can’t improve on these S’s I don’t think I’m going to name her Kalista, but I got better and the day she was born, we named her Kalista.”
Today Jessica is cancer-free, but doctors have never been able to pinpoint the cause of her cancer. “When you think of oral cancer the picture that comes to into your head is someone who smokes and drinks heavily. I’m neither of those things,” Tar says.
Even Dr. Shah was surprised by Jessica’s cancer diagnosis. Smoking and drinking are the most common risk factors, but that is changing.
The biggest risk factor now is the sexually transmitted virus called HPV, the same virus that can cause cervical cancer. Jessica did not have HPV, either.
But many being diagnosed now do. The Oral Cancer Foundation says 40,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year alone, the majority of those cases will be tied to HPV.
“Of the 100 patients coming in today with oral pharynx cancer I would say 80 percent will be HPV-positive,” says Dr. Shah.
And experts say that number is climbing in almost epidemic proportions.
Celebrities Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Blythe Danner are helping spread the work about the potentially deadly disease.
Michael Douglas has battled oral cancer for several years.
Bruce Paltrow, Gwenth’s father and Blythe Danner’s husband, died from it.
“There is an epidemic of oral cancer among young people, unfortunately due to oral sex,” says Blythe Danner.
It’s not just young people, you can live with HPV for years and never know you have it, there is no way to screen for the virus and in most cases it doesn’t have any symptoms.
That is why at 52, Kevin Pruyne’s oral cancer diagnosis was a shock.
“I went to see my general doctor and she felt like it was just an infection or something like that and did the antibiotics,” says Kevin Pruyne.
After several months and rounds of antibiotics, Kevin’s ‘infection’ seemed to be getting worse.
Finally a CT scan and biopsy determined Kevin had stage 4 cancer, the cause?
The sexually transmitted virus HPV, Kevin didn’t know he had it or that it could cause cancer.
“You don’t talk about it but we have been monogamous for 30 years,” Kevin says.
Kevin and his wife, Kathy, were worried the cancer had taken too long to diagnose.
“If it’s gone past your collar bone and into your lungs its game over,” Kevin says.
Thankfully the cancer hadn’t reached his lungs. Kevin underwent an aggressive treatment of radiation and chemotherapy.
“He was sick, he was really sick and it was hard to see and watch him vomiting becoming less of the strong man that he was,” Kathy says.
Doctors say HPV-positive cancers are typically curable. A couple of months ago Kevin got the good news he is cancer free, but he still worries.
“You say what is my prognosis, you make up 5 years we will call you cured unless it pops up somewhere else,” Kevin says.
Kevin wishes he knew the dangers of HPV. Now he is warning everyone he knows.
“I’ve got some guys that I work with that are younger and have a tendency to be a bit more promiscuous than they should so I sent a letter saying listen this is what caused my cancer and you all need to be careful,” Kevin says.
The early symptoms of oral cancer, like a sore throat can easily go undetected, so early screening is important.
Dentists are now starting to do comprehensive oral cancer screenings.
Upper East Side Doctor Robert Friedman uses a florescent light to look for irregularities in the mouth.
“Your dentist is your mouth specialist,” Dr. Friedman says. “Dentists really should be the first line of detection of these types of known entities.”
Fluorescent light cancer screenings aren’t covered by most dental insurance policies, but it typically costs only $25.
There is a vaccine against HPV, Gardasil, which can be administered to pre-pubescent girls and boys.A screening will be held in April: Thursday, April 25, 2013 9:00 am – 12:00 Noon Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Enid A. Haupt Pavilion 425 East 67th Street Fourth Floor, Suite 5 Between York and First Avenues
No appointment necessary. For further information, call 646-497-9161.
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* This news story was resourced by the Oral Cancer Foundation, and vetted for appropriateness and accuracy.