Oral and Throat Cancer Stories (Oral Cancer Awareness Month)

A story reposted from http://behealthy.baystatebanner.com, February 3, 2011 – Vol. 5 • No. 4


Image of Willa Goins with daughter

Willia Goins, right, shown with her daughter, Tracy, says that with the help of a prosthesis, she is able to speak after the removal of her larynx due to cancer. (Daryl Goins photo)

“Willia Goins, 70, now speaks in a whisper.

She had her larynx, or voice box, removed about 14 years ago, and the whisper is as loud as it gets. Goins might speak quietly, but her message comes through loud and clear. “I always had problems with my throat,” she explained. “Even when I was young.”

Back then she said she paid no attention to the intermittent pain she had when swallowing and attributed it to the cold weather or perhaps a cold. But as she grew older, the pain continued and got worse with time.

Goins finally gave in and visited a doctor. “Something is terribly wrong,” she told her physician. She underwent weeks of testing until the diagnosis was confirmed. “It [cancer] was in my throat,” she said.

The doctors warned her that it was possible that her larynx might have to be removed if her throat cancer was extensive. When her initial treatment of chemotherapy failed to solve the problem, she welcomed the surgery.

She was 56 at the time. “Maybe I’ve talked enough,” she said.

Treatment for oral cancer varies by its location and extent, according to Dr. Scharukh Jalisi, the director of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery and Skull Base Surgery at Boston Medical Center, and may include surgery, radiation and in some cases, chemotherapy. A diverse team of professionals is involved, including oncologists (cancer specialists), dentists, reconstructive surgeons and speech therapists. The team is extensive because of the potential losses suffered from oral cancer. The disease can compromise the ability to speak, swallow and eat, and result in irreversible damage to the area impacted.

A funny thing happened after Goins’ surgery. She was not able to speak, but that didn’t stop her from communicating. Her daughter walked into her hospital room with a chalk board.

“From day one I was ‘talking,’ ” she said. “After that I carried a notebook with me.” It was a year before Goins could talk again with the assistance of a prosthesis and speech therapy.

Her surgery was followed by radiation. She has had no treatment since then — and that was 14 years ago.

In hindsight Goins realizes that her smoking probably played a role in her disease. She’s cured of that habit. “You don’t want to pick up a cigarette after you’ve had a throat operation,” she explained.

Kenneth Tucker still marvels at the fact that he had oral cancer though he says he never smoked. His age of 46 at the time of diagnosis made his situation even more unusual, since the median age at diagnosis of oral cancer is 62.

Image of Kenneth Tucker handling heavy machinery at work.

Tucker, who is now 49, remembers the story well. “I started having pain and bleeding in my right cheek when I chewed and brushed my teeth,” he said. He noticed a red spot on the inside of his right cheek, but chalked it up to a sore of some kind.

When his home remedies of salt water and peroxide provided no cure, he knew he had a problem. The pain intensified.

Tucker admitted that he had never heard of oral or head and neck cancer. He said that cancer was the farthest thing from his mind.

Fortunately, he had a dental appointment the following month and credits the dental hygienist for her keen observation — and luck. The hygienist’s mother had cancer of the mouth, and the red spot looked suspiciously familiar.

Her suspicions were correct. The dentist took a look and didn’t like what he saw. An oral surgeon biopsied the sore. A week later a diagnosis of cancer was confirmed.

In October 2006 Tucker underwent surgery to have the cancer removed. “We thought everything was all right,” he said. But a few months later the pain — and the cancer — recurred in the same spot, but now involved the lymph nodes.

He underwent another surgery to remove the tumor and lymph nodes followed by seven weeks of radiation.

That was almost four years ago and Tucker has had a clean bill of health since then. Checkups have been good. He had a couple of scares when white spots appeared in his mouth, but a fungus was to blame. Red and white spots in the mouth can be signs of oral cancer.

Tucker’s day-to-day life has changed. The radiation impaired his salivary glands, resulting in dry mouth. “Every 30 minutes I have to drink water,” Tucker explained. He also uses dental trays filled with fluoride gel 10 minutes each day to decrease the risk of dental decay. Saliva prevents the buildup of bacteria in the mouth that can lead to caries. Every morning he bites into a tool that he says allows him to release his jaws.

“Jaws stiffen from radiation,” he explained.

When he could finally return to work Tucker knew he was on his way. He’s become a preacher of sorts at work. When he sees young men who dip, or use smokeless tobacco, he has a few choice words.

“You take a look at me,” he warns. “You don’t want to go through what I went through.”

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