Discussing the horrors of oral cancer with two survivors
Kevin Henry, managing editor of Dental Economics, recently sat down with two survivors of oral cancer to discuss their battles against the disease and the message they're spreading now to dental practices througout the country.
Note: I recently had the chance to talk with Christine Brader, a former smoker and three-time oral cancer survivor who lives in Allentown, Pa. She is a volunteer senior patient advocate and a board administrator for the Oral Cancer Foundation. For nearly five years, Brader has been active with the Oral Cancer Foundation’s online public forum. She devotes several hours a day to compassionately helping oral cancer patients with information and support. I discussed her battle against oral cancer as well as her current push to get more dental offices involved in the war against the disease.
Brader and Eric Statler (interviewed later in this article) were featured on the April cover of Dental Economics.
Kevin Henry: You survived oral cancer three times. How were you able to overcome?
Christine Brader: There aren’t very many three-time cancer survivors out there, especially when we are talking about oral cancer. I believe God saved me for my children. I wasn’t going to do any kind of surgery because I really didn’t think I was going to survive the third round of oral cancer within three years. I knew the surgery would be bad; I was Stage IV and needed my jaw removed. I knew I would probably end up disfigured. It’s hard to do something when you know your looks are going to be gone overnight and you’re not guaranteed that you will survive, but I knew I had my children depending on me. I had to at least try for them.
Henry: Talk about your recovery.
Brader: I was in a medically induced coma for three weeks and in the hospital for two months. My body rejected the titanium jaw and the surgery had to be redone. Every day when I woke up, I cried. Even with medication, the pain was almost unbearable. I was really messed up; even my mind didn’t work quite right. A husband of one of my friends had gone through this same surgery. I asked her why she hadn’t warned me that the surgery and recovery were going to be as bad as they were. She told me she didn’t because she knew I wouldn’t go through with it if she had. I was in agony and all pieced together. It was important for me to survive for my kids. I was the only parent they had. It took me a full year to recover from my surgery.
Henry: You’re involved with the Oral Cancer Foundation and local fund-raising efforts in the battle against oral cancer. What are you doing to educate dentists on what you’ve been through?
Brader: My goal is to get to every one of the 200 local dental offices and set up free oral cancer screenings in many of them. I’m very persistent and very passionate about this, so I don’t mind asking dental offices to be part of this. Before my surgery, I was shy and quiet. Now I’m a chatterbox.
When I go into a dental office, I tell them I am a three-time oral cancer survivor and I am a representative of the Oral Cancer Foundation. I tell them how important it is to do the oral cancer screenings on every single patient. If people ask me about my face while I am out in public, I am happy to have the opportunity to tell them about oral cancer and the importance of getting regular oral cancer screenings. When people see with their own eyes what oral cancer can do, then they can truly understand how horrible it is. This is why it’s so important for me to go out and speak with dental professionals face to face. Along with asking for free oral cancer screenings, I also ask for donations to the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Henry: What’s your main message when you talk to a dentist or dental team member?
Brader: I want to tell all of them that oral cancer is a fast-moving and deadly disease. Dental offices really are the front line in this battle. It takes just a minute to do a screening. It’s so important to catch the cancer early when it’s easier to treat. Only about 50% of the people who are diagnosed with oral cancer will still be alive in five years. I believe oral cancer screenings should be a part of the regular checkup, and dental offices should be educating their patients. We don’t want to scare patients, but they also need to know that sometimes a canker sore may not be just a canker sore. If it isn’t caught early, that little “canker sore” might kill you. Lately, there are many younger people being diagnosed with oral cancer who don’t fit the usual criteria; some are HPV+ and others have no known cause. I know what caused my oral cancer; I was stupid and smoked. Now I have to eat with a feeding tube. I know how lucky I am to still be alive, which is the most important thing.
Henry: But you’re also finding that many dental practices still aren’t doing any kind of oral cancer screening, correct?
Brader: I’ve asked so many people I have randomly met if their dentist has ever checked them for oral cancer, and no one has ever said yes. People are still very unaware of oral cancer, and I think that includes dentists as well. How can they not know about it? I do think dentists know, but it’s far back in their minds when they are talking to patients. It’s time that it becomes a part of every checkup in every practice.
Editor’s Note: I also had the chance to talk to Eric Statler, a Stage IV oral cancer survivor who now serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for The Oral Cancer Foundation. I discussed his battle against oral cancer and the message he is trying to spread about the link between HPV and oral cancer.
Henry: What would you say to dental professionals about the importance of screening for oral cancer in their practice?
Eric Statler: Honestly, I wouldn’t have to say much. My face really says it all. When I went through my oral cancer surgery, I lost everything. I can’t kiss my wife. My diet is 99 percent liquid. I still remember how good food tastes, but I can’t enjoy it because I don’t want to take a chance on choking. It’s been four years, and I’m just now starting to get my life back together.
People can read about oral cancer in a book and see the pictures and it may not make much of an impact. But when you meet a survivor, that’s when oral cancer becomes real. People just don’t seem to understand that half of those diagnosed with oral cancer die, and many survivors are left severely disfigured. It doesn't have to be that way.”
Henry: Talk about your thoughts when you first heard you had oral cancer.
Statler: My first thought was my family. I had a 4- and 7-year-old at the time, and I was worried about them and my wife. I was really in disbelief. I didn’t smoke or use tobacco. I rarely drank. My oral cancer came from HPV (Human papillomavirus) and I was diagnosed on January 23. It could’ve been diagnosed much earlier when I went to the dentist with what I thought was pain from wisdom teeth in August.
Henry: Your oral cancer came from HPV, which is contracted through unprotected sex and oral sex. That’s a tough discussion for many dental professionals to have because it’s uncomfortable to talk about the link between oral sex and oral cancer. What’s your thought on that?
Statler: What’s more comfortable for you? Talking to a patient about the link and/or handing them a brochure or telling a patient he or she has oral cancer? The latest statistic I’ve seen is that 80 percent of women by the age of 60 will have a strain of HPV. Dentists are medical professionals. Why wouldn’t you talk to your patients about it? It’s your responsibility.
Henry: Talk about your work with the Oral Cancer Foundation.
Statler: I found OCF 11 months after my diagnosis. I was going through my treatment and surgery and was able to plug in and talk to other people who had been through oral cancer. Now I want to help others and raise awareness about how horrible oral cancer is. I want to inspire people to focus what they should already be focusing on, and that’s finding oral cancer early.