- web-based article
- Jennifer Lenhart
Long running TV show As the World Turn’s Colleen Zenk Pinter (character Barbara Ryan) spoke about her battle with tongue cancer in Digest’s 11/27 issue, but her main goal is to encourage everyone to get screened. It’s a quick, completely painless procedure. “You should demand a cancer screening from your denist,” she advises. “They’ll look in your mouth and feel down inside your jaw bone, outside and inside, upper and lower, they’ll look at your tongue and throat.” Here, she talks more about her initial diagnosis, and when she first decided to share her story.
Soap Opera Digest: How did this all begin?
Colleen Zenk Pinter: I first noticed it last summer, so it’s been over a year now. [I constantly had] canker sores coming and going last summer into last fall. They finally stopped going away and started getting larger — you know how painful one is, these were multiplying. I said, “This isn’t right,” and that’s when I called my physician to get my yearly, thinking I could get in right away, forgetting that it takes a while to book something like that. I called the second week of November and he couldn’t get me in until the first week of January. I had actually talked to Eldo [Ray Estes, ATWT’s key makeup artist] at work about it. I had shown him and said, ‘I’m dealing with this nasty thing that won’t go away.’ So I went in and saw my doctor, got my physical. All of my numbers, my blood work, my cholesterol, my iron, everything was in great shape. I was a really healthy 54-year-old who has boundless energy. I overbook myself all the time, as my mother tells me. I said to the doctor, “Take a look at this.” And he said, “I don’t like it. You’re going to go see a maxillofacial specialist tomorrow.” … [The specialist] said, “I think you have a combination of a fungal and bacterial infection, so let’s treat you for that.” It was an antibiotic, a big bottle of orange medicine. And it started working and it got better. I would go back and see him every single week for five weeks. And then it stopped working. [What was left was the tumor.] Usually, you don’t know what’s going on inside of your mouth. By the time I went into surgery, if I stuck my tongue out, you could see the right side was about twice as big as the left, and the tumor went way to the back. You could feel the entire thing. But who goes around feeling their tongue?
Digest: What did it feel like?
Pinter: Hard, and it was elongated and fat.
Digest: Is that why the sores kept coming and going?
Pinter: They don’t know.
Digest: But you hadn’t really felt it before.
Pinter: I didn’t actually feel my tongue until after I got the diagnosis. So at that point, he said, “I think we need to do a biopsy.” So he put me under a general anesthetic in the office. Mark [Pinter, her husband, ex-Grant, AW et al] was there with me, and then he had to go to California. Unfortunately, he was going to be gone for [daughter] Georgia’s 14th birthday, but [daughter] Kelsey came home and I said, “I want you to come with me to see [the doctor]. I love him; I think he’s a fabulous doctor.” As I was walking out of the house, the phone rang. I let it go through to voicemail; it was a nurse [at the cancer center] saying, “We just wanted to let you know that the doctor has scheduled you for an appointment on Wednesday,” which was two days later. I thought, “Okay.” I already knew at that point. So when we got to the office, the doctor was there and the room was full of all of his nurses, who I knew really well at that point … I won’t go into all of that because it was so wild and wacky the next couple of days, but when all of a sudden you get a diagnosis like this and they say, “Don’t go home and get on the Internet,” you go home and get on the Internet. I knew it was cancer. I knew it was Stage 2. And that was pretty much all I knew … Luckily, one of the first sites I found was www.oralcancerfoundation.org. The week before I went into my first surgery was when I contacted Brian Hill of the Oral Cancer Foundation. I left him a very lengthy voicemail, not thinking that this man who was the head of the foundation would call me back. At that point, I didn’t know he was a Stage 4 cancer survivor. But he called back and thus began our association. I said, “I want to do something. Tell me what I can do.” He said, “That’s great, but you’re way ahead of yourself.” I said the same thing to my group [of doctors] at Yale and they said, “You’ve got to get through and then figure out if you want to do something.” So it was when I got back from doing [Stephen Sondheim’s] Follies [in Sullivan, IL] that I decided to speak about it.
Digest: What has the response been like?
Pinter: The outpouring of understanding and love and encouragement that I have felt, from not just the fans but people who have found out about this and have had family members or they themselves have gone through it, the support has been overwhelming. It’s all, “Thank you for getting it out there. Thank you for saying something, speaking up.” That’s all it’s about.