Every year more than 40,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer and someone dies every hour from this horrible disfiguring disease ... creating more than 8,000 deaths per year. Many of those deaths could be avoided with early diagnoses and treatment.
Dental professionals owe it to their patients to include a thorough oral cancer screening as part of EVERY recare visit. There must be awareness among patients that this disease is also on the rise for future generations due to the HPV 16 virus. While tobacco and excessive use of alcohol are still primary contributors; too many patients without those contributors are being diagnosed at an alarming rate. These areas include: Cancer of the throat, lips, tonsils, hard palate, floor of the mouth, tongue, inside the cheeks, gums and salivary glands.
For every diagnoses, there are hundreds NOT diagnosed due to hurried exams, lack of training of all dental personnel on HOW to do a proper and through examination or a lack of warning to patients that sores in their mouth that don't heal quickly, excessive sun exposure to the lips, tongue pain, loose teeth, a lump or thickening on the skin lining the mouth, poor fitting dentures, difficulty in swallowing and persistent sore throats should ALL be reason for concern.
In 2006, David, the 42-year-old son of Lee Tarvin, a dear friend and 25-year coworker, was scheduled for a routine outpatient surgery to remove what was thought to be a benign lump on the right side of his neck which was detected by his astute dentist. Lee and I were holding a dental practice management workshop in Virginia Beach where we both reside.
At about 11 a.m., Lee received an urgent call at the hotel conference room that her son would be transferred to inpatient surgery where he underwent a five-hour surgery. David’s diagnoses: Stage 4 cancer of the tonsil. After extensive treatments and debilitating months of weakness from being unable to eat, David slowly regained his strength by sheer determination. Today, he is back to work as a jet mechanic and just passed his sixth year cancer-free examination. Thanks to David’s excellent surgeon, oncologist and dentist, he is one of the 50% lucky patients that survived even when there was little hope for recovery.
Soon after David Tarvin's surgery in 2006, during a business meeting with two of my speaking colleagues, we discussed starting an oral cancer foundation in David Tarvin’s honor, and make it a philanthropic division of the Speaking Consulting Network which I founded in 1997. Due to the sheer busyness of my speaking and consulting schedule during that time, along with the annual SCN conference planning, I did not have enough hours in a day to start the foundation.
Fast forward to 2012: While talking with another dental friend, Robin Morrison of RLM Marketing about her brother Mike, who had recently died of oral cancer, I mentioned how my sister-in-law, Charlotte, was undergoing treatments and was given six months to live. It was during that conversation about Mike and Charlotte that Robin and I decided to bring back my dream of starting a foundation.
With Robin’s marketing genius and dedication to helping others like Mike, I knew she was the right person to help carry on with a foundation that would differ from other Oral Cancer Foundations. These foundations do a tremendous job but monies donated typically go for oral cancer research. We wanted Oral Cancer Cause (OCC) to be different.
During her brother’s final stages, he lost his building business in Maine and nearly lost his own home. During that time, Robin became an advocate to find financial assistance for her brother and his family. There was no help available through existing foundations or organizations. Being diagnosed with oral cancer is hardship enough. Robin and I are determined to help families during treatment with financial aid for everyday expenses such as mortgages, utilities, rent, gas for their automobiles, food for their families and the list goes on. We rely on dentists and the patient’s oncologists to help the Board of the Foundation determine each individual’s need.
From the minute Robin and I, along with board of advisors and our oral cancer spokespersons, decided on our mission, we have had 100% support from dental and medical corporations, dentists and teams, other oral cancer foundations and our legal and accounting teams who set up our nonprofit corporation pro bono.
Mike Collins was the oldest sibling in our family. He was the big brother that we all loved, adored and respected. There were four of us, raised by loving parents who made sure we had a great upbringing. We are a very close family that values the time we get to spend with one another. Although Mike lived in Maine and the rest of us live in Florida, he made sure to visit us annually, bringing along his adult children. During his visits, he insisted on the whole family getting together. As the big brother, he felt responsible for maintaining our strong family bond.
Mike was the sort of person who would take care of everyone else before he took care of himself. He always seemed to have time and money to give to others, whether it was employees, friends or family. He lived a very modest life and he needed very little for himself. His life was simple and he was a happy and content soul with a big heart. He owned a very successful business, building beautiful homes on the coast of Maine. My father always said Mike was a true artist, and that he was. His work was astounding.
When Mike called me one day in 2007 and told me he noticed a spot on the roof of his mouth and he was seeing an oral surgeon so it could be biopsied, I was sure it was nothing to be concerned about. Then he told me that the spot had been there for a while, but his dentist told him that it would likely go away within a couple of weeks. He gave Mike a prescription for an antibiotic and sent him on his way. No recheck and no warning about how serious this “spot” could be. After I learned these details, I became concerned but remained optimistic and hopeful that he would be fine. Then I received the next call from Mike, he did, indeed, have oral cancer. It can’t be!
My biggest hope was that this was caught early and would be very treatable. It wasn’t though. Mike’s oral cancer was very progressed and he required extensive, disfiguring surgery. He had to have half of the roof of his mouth removed, along with most of his upper teeth. The surgery was grueling, and the radiation and chemo was debilitating. My sister, Christie, my brother, Steve, and I flew up to Boston to be there with Mike during his surgery and stay at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. None of us had any idea what surgery and radiation would do to Mike. Unless you go through this with someone, you have no idea. His quality of life changed on a dime. It was heartbreaking to watch this loving and gentle man endure this.
One of the saddest things about Mike’s story is that it didn’t have to have this sad ending. If he was diagnosed and treated earlier, the outcome would have been very different. Mike survived almost five years from his diagnosis date, but those years were not quality years. He never felt sorry for himself and even during his last months, he was most concerned about those he would be leaving behind.
Mike would want his complete story shared with hope that lives would be saved. He truly cared more about others, than about himself. He would be extremely pleased to know that Oral Cancer Cause saved others from suffering as he did.