Feb 15, 2018 12:00 PM

Author: Communications and Public Affairs


Rebecca Ward went to the dentist for a routine check-up and ended up with a startling diagnosis: oral cancer. After that initial shock, Rebecca was treated at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and went on to become an advocate for oral cancer awareness.

How did you find out you had cancer?

During a routine check-up at the dentist, the dental assistant asked about a canker sore on my tongue. When my dentist came in, his assistant mentioned the sore to him, and he seemed pretty concerned. He asked if it had been longer than two weeks. I said yes. He referred me to an oral surgeon, who did a biopsy. My oral surgeon was very clear about the cancer diagnosis at the follow-up appointment: I had oral squamous cell carcinoma. I was told I needed surgery immediately. After calling family members, my sister and mom urged me to go to Huntsman Cancer Institute.

What was it like to hear you had cancer?

Hearing I had cancer came as a shock, but I was eerily calm through my diagnostic appointment. It took days for it to sink in. I have a degree in community health education, and I did an internship with the Utah Tobacco Quit Line. I can remember thinking I would never need to worry about getting oral cancer because I chose to live a lifestyle that eliminated the majority of risk factors for it (such as tobacco use; learn more about preventing oral cancer and about oral cancer screening).

What treatments did you undergo?

I had surgery. It was a ten-hour procedure performed by Luke Buchmann, MD, and Jason Hunt, MD. They removed the tumor from my tongue, rebuilt it with skin and fat from my arm—along with a vein and artery to provide blood supply to the graft—and then put a skin graft from my thigh on my arm. They also did a surgery on my neck to test some lymph nodes. I was at HCI for six days.

I was told I would need months of speech and swallow therapy after the surgery, but at my first appointment with the therapist at my two-week follow up, I was told I didn’t need any. I was very blessed to leave the hospital able to eat and speak.

What helped you get through treatment? 

I have a huge support system. My husband and I have very close families. From the moment of diagnosis, they came together to make treatment as easy as possible. My mom came and slept on the couch every night at the hospital. My sisters were there smiling when I came out of surgery, and they helped translate my crazy hand movements to get me what I needed. My children were passed between loving hands and were even a little disappointed when they were left with me again! My sweet husband did what I needed most. He was just there. He drove me to Utah for appointments, laughed at the jokes I tried to write on the whiteboard in the ICU, and has embraced my scars as beautiful enhancements.

I had such a great team at HCI. The nurses that helped the week after surgery were wonderful. Dr. Buchmann’s nurse, Michelle, has been so helpful to me. She answered all of my questions quickly while we waited for surgery. And she has been a wonderful sounding board for any concerns or even ridiculous feelings I have. I told her at my last appointment that I sometimes feel like a cancer fraud—my case was so simple and treated so quickly that I feel I don’t deserve to call myself a survivor. She laughed and asked if I had looked at my scars recently and seen how much they had beat me up. We then talked about how great it is that my case has been simple and that I should be grateful for the outcome, but never forget what it took to get there and that it wasn’t nothing. And my family and I are really fond of Dr. Buchmann and Dr. Hunt. They rebuilt my tongue beautifully.

What is your life like today? 

Life is very much back to where it was when I was diagnosed. My tongue functions so well that I hardly notice the reconstruction, and most people assume the outward scars are not cancer related. I officially have “no evidence of disease.” I will continue coming for quarterly checkups and yearly scans for a while, but for now, cancer seems to be behind us.

What do you want people to know about oral cancer?

I spend a lot of time teaching people the two-week rule: if you have a mouth sore that lasts longer than two weeks, get it biopsied. I would have ignored my mouth sore for years if my dentist hadn’t insisted I check it out. Also, don’t assume oral cancer only affects old men with a chewing tobacco habit. This particular cancer is growing more present among young adults who have zero risk factors. However, it is very treatable if caught early, and you can live a full and healthy life afterwards.

Possible Signs of Oral Cancer

Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you notice any of these signs lasting longer than two weeks:

  • A sore throat that doesn't heal
  • A lump or thickening inside your mouth
  • A white or reddish patch inside your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • A change in the way your dentures fit
  • Tongue pain
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficult or painful chewing
  • A feeling that something is caught in your throat

HCI experts recommend having your dentist screen for oral cancer at routine check-ups. You can also get screened for oral cancer at the Be Well Utah HCI Community Open House each year in August. Screenings are limited and by appointment only. Look for more information as the date nears. 


Communications and Public Affairs

Huntsman Cancer Institute
public.affairs@hci.utah.edu

oral cancer patient stories tobacco Community Report

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