Oral cancer survivor uses story to warn others of the dangers of oral cancer – News

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama ranks fifth in the United States in incidence of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx and seventh among states in deaths from cancer of the oral cavity and of the pharynx.

Four days after Matthew Snowden, 38, found out his wife was pregnant with their second child, he received news he never thought he’d hear – a diagnosis of oral cancer.

Prior to his diagnosis, Snowden had what appeared to be an ulcer on the side of his tongue which was causing him some discomfort. He had his wisdom teeth removed just months before the stain appeared and assumed the discomfort was related to the procedure. After a few visits to her local dentist, her pain wouldn’t go away, so her dentist decided to perform a biopsy. Days later, Snowden was diagnosed with stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma and began exploring treatment options.

“When my wife and I first learned it was cancer, it really caught my wife and I off guard,” Snowden said. “My first thought was that my wife might have to raise our children on her own. But on the other hand, it also gave me something to fight for. I really wanted to be able to hold our son when he was born, so it motivated me to do whatever I had to do to get better.

Snowden was mentioned UAB Medicine Head and Neck Oncology Program. This program is made up of a team of specialists including surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, dentists, prosthodontists, speech therapists, nurses and nutritionists.

Snowden was treated by Antoine Morlandt, MD, DDS, Associate Professor at the University of Alabama in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Birmingham. Morlandt performed the surgery and removed the entire tumor and reconstructed the missing tongue tissue to restore its function. After the operation, Snowden opted to undergo radiation therapy as a precaution to ensure the cancer would not return.

After 36 days of radiation therapy, months of physiotherapy appointments and some time spent improving her speech, Snowden completed her recovery and was able to hold her son the day he was born. Today, he is the father of a 16-year-old son and a one-year-old son. He has made it his mission to use his story to educate others about the dangers of oral cancer.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that oral cancer affects everything,” Snowden said. “It not only affects your mouth and the way you eat and speak; but due to the location of the tumor, it also affects the muscles of the neck, shoulders and arms.

Snowden had a perineural tumor, that is, it traveled along the nerves. Oral cancers, like other cancers in the body, tend to grow along the nerves and travel through the lymph nodes and metastasize to the neck. After her procedure, Snowden attended physical therapy appointments to regain mobility in her arms, shoulders and neck.

Learn more about UAB Medicine’s Oral Oncology Clinic at UAB MediCast.

Snowden encourages people to take their dental hygiene very seriously and have routine dental checkups.

“Do your dental checkups and pay attention to any problems or stains that develop in your mouth,” Snowden said. “When I first noticed the ulcer in my mouth I thought it was all in my head, and if I hadn’t gone for a checkup I might have waited until it was too late.”

Prevention and treatment of oral cancer

Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer in the United States. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama ranks fifth in the United States in incidence of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx and seventh among states in deaths from cancer of the oral cavity and of the pharynx. Head and neck cancer can present in the nasal cavity, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands, throat and larynx.

Just like in Snowden’s case, oral cancer will often pass for typical dental diseases such as gum disease, ulcers or red and white patches, Morlandt warns. Unlike other cancers that can be detected by screening tests, oral cancer can only be detected by a healthcare provider examining the mouth and referring the patient to a surgeon for a biopsy.

“Patients like Matthew are becoming more common over time,” Morlandt said. “These patients are younger, have fewer risk factors, and in many cases will have advanced disease. The fastest growing group are Caucasian women between the ages of 25 and 35 who have very few risk factors.

Morlandt says some of the best ways to help prevent oral cancer are to avoid excessive alcohol and tobacco and maintain routine dental visits.

“About 75% of patients with oral cancer are first seen by their dentist,” Morlandt said. “Early detection of oral cancer may be the cure. If patients have spots in their mouths or lumps in their necks, they should tell their dentist or primary care provider. I cannot stress enough the importance of the role that dentists and primary care providers play in identifying these tumors.

In addition to bumps or sores that won’t go away, other symptoms of mouth cancer include swelling in the jaw, chronic sore throat, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness or change in voice, and bleeding unusual pain or numbness in the head and neck. If a patient has any of these symptoms, dentists and primary care providers can examine the mouth and refer patients to an oral cancer surgeon to perform a biopsy if needed. If a patient’s biopsy finds cancer, an oral surgeon will work with them to develop a treatment plan.

“A diagnosis of oral cancer can be devastating to a person’s quality of life,” Morlandt said. “At UAB Medicine’s Oral Oncology Clinic, our patients will work with multiple specialists who can meet all of their oral cancer needs in one location. It works wonders for our patients and helps ease some of the burdens that come with this diagnosis.

UAB Head and Neck Oncology is part of UAB’s O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the first eight centers in the United States designated by the National Cancer Institute. When patients are treated at an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center, they have access to the latest therapies, cutting-edge clinical trials, and the expertise needed to treat their cancer. Because cancer care often involves multiple types of treatment delivered by various specialists at UAB and regionally, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center strives to help patients every step of the way by providing team-based care, as well as education, resources, planning assistance, and contact information for any questions or concerns that may arise during or after treatment.

“We realize that a cancer diagnosis is life changing and we admire the bravery and courage of each of our patients,” Morlandt said. “It’s an honor to be able to take care of them and walk alongside them during this difficult process.”

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