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Mom's routine dental cleaning leads to a life-saving surgery


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SALT LAKE CITY — Rebecca Ward never dreamed a routine dental cleaning would lead to a life-saving surgery.

Her hygienist noticed a canker sore on her tongue and asked her if it had been there very long. Ward wasn't sure how long the sore had been there and didn't think much of it.

Her dentist sent her to an oral surgeon and although she thought that might have been an exaggerated move, she obliged.

The results were a shock.

"They called me the night before the appointment and said, 'We just wanted to make sure you have someone coming with you,'" Ward recalled.

She had oral cancer.

Dr. Jason Hunt, an otolaryngologist with the Huntsman Cancer Institute, said it's not uncommon for people to miss the signs of oral cancer.

"They start out as white lesions that are slightly raised but they're not painful initially and the patient doesn't think much of it. They think, 'Oh, maybe I bit my tongue or bit my cheek,'" Hunt said.

Ward didn't have any of the risk factors.

"No smoking, no drinking," she said. "I actually did an internship with the Utah Tobacco Quit Line."

Hunt said that's not unusual. The cancer institute has a lot of patients who go in with really no risk factors and still develop oral cavity cancer. Often times it's in the middle age, female population, he said.

Hunt recommends if you have a change inside your mouth that persists for more than two to three weeks, have it checked and possibly biopsied. When caught early, oral cancer can be removed without chemotherapy or radiation and with little effect on speech and swallowing. A large, later-stage lesion can require removal of parts of the tongue and mouth, and even the jaw.

Doctors removed Ward's tumor and took skin and fat from her arm to reconstruct her tongue.

"You would never know," Ward said. "People think I have a large piece of gum in my mouth."

Ward is grateful she didn't lose her voice, and now she uses it to warn others.

Some dentists routinely do oral cavity searches to look for lesions, but not all. Doctors recommend asking for one at your next cleaning. The best advice is to be your own advocate and push for something to be done if a sore isn't healing.

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Heather Simonsen

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