In February 2019, Megan became one of the almost 53,000.
“I had what I thought was a canker sore on my tongue that wouldn’t go away, and I was really worried about it,” she says.
Her sister-in-law, who works at Omaha’s Premier Dental, encouraged Megan to come in for an oral cancer screening. That exam led to an urgent referral to Nebraska Medicine and two biopsies. The first was inconclusive. The second, just over a year ago, was not.
“That’s when they told me I had cancer” – squamous cell carcinoma to be specific. (According to the National Cancer Institute, most lip and oral cavity cancers start in squamous cells – the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the lips and mouth.)
The Oral Cancer Foundation says nearly 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year. Of those, only 57% will be alive in five years. The death rate for oral cancer – roughly one person per hour – is higher than that of cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, laryngeal cancer and many other cancers.The prevailing reason? Oral cancer is routinely discovered late in its development.
“Early detection of oral cancer is crucial because lesions found in the mouth, head and neck area can spread quickly, creating much larger problems if left untreated. Fatality rates of oral cancer, when detected early, are extremely low compared to later stage diagnoses,” says Dr. Dan Beninato, DDS, owner of Premier Dental.
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, a time for reminding people of the importance of oral cancer screenings. Dr. Beninato and his team perform a no-charge, visual oral cancer screening at every visit. Premier Dental also offers low-cost access to Oral ID — a two-minute, ultraviolet screening process that can detect oral cancer at the earliest, most treatable stages.
“With the advancement in this new Oral ID technology, the screening process has become even easier and more accurate, allowing us to detect oral cancer earlier and save more lives,” Dr. Beninato says. “If we detect something suspicious during the oral cancer screening, it would be very common for us to include an oral surgeon to biopsy the area of concern to determine whether immediate treatment would be appropriate.”
After her screening, Megan admits the urgency of the Premier team “freaked me out,” but she appreciates it now.
“They took it really seriously, which made me take it seriously,” she says.
Surgeons at Nebraska Medicine removed a tumor in Megan’s tongue as well as 14 lymph nodes in her neck to confirm the cancer had not spread. (It had not.) Megan did not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation — just post-surgical speech therapy.
Anyone can develop oral cancer but some run a higher risk, including those who smoke, chew smokeless tobacco products and/or consume too much alcohol as well as those who’ve had excessive sun exposure, especially at a young age. The fastest-growing population of oral cancer patients encompasses those diagnosed with human papilloma virus (HPV), further boosting the importance of widespread, accessible screenings.
Dr. Beninato suggests patients perform monthly self-exams for unusual red or white patches, slow-to-heal sores, lumps or thickening anywhere inside the mouth, on the lips, or in the throat and neck area. If concerns arise, call the office at 402-718-8741 to set-up a screening.
Megan says her tussle with cancer has made her more appreciative of every day — and more vocal about the importance of screenings: “If it’s something, you want to find it as early as possible.”