The silent disease: How early detection of oral cancer saved one local girl's life

(WTOL) - Sitting in the chair at the dentist might not be your favorite thing to do, but it can save your life. Just like it did for one local girl.

A disease that some local dentists say is extremely time sensitive, the survival rate of oral cancer is less than 40-percent after a late diagnosis.  Smokers and frequent alcohol consumers are most at risk for oral cancer.

However, 70-percent of the population could get some type of oral cancer.

It's important to not ignore the symptoms, which Kirsten Price didn't do.

"I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to play sports again or do all the normal things that 12-year-olds get to do," said Price.

At just 12 years old, Kirsten Price was diagnosed with oral cancer. After noticing a lump inside of her cheek, she did what any 12 year old girl would do: she asked her mom what it was.

"I looked at it and I'm like, 'it just kind of looks like a cold sore. We'll keep watching it and see what happens' and then a week later it's bigger. It's in the mouth so we're like you know what," said Debbie Price. "We're going the dentist."

Once she got in the doctor's chair, their family dentist Dr. Tomase knew something wasn't right.

"It really alarmed me. I said 'hey, get her over to the oral surgeon right away,'" said Dr Tomase.

After waiting two weeks for a biopsy, doctors confirmed Kirsten had cancer and worked quickly to remove it from her mouth. Doctors had to reconstruct her cheeks by doing a skin transplant from her arm and taking a vein from her forearm and attaching it to her neck.

Now that Kirsten's fully recovered, Dr. Tomase keeps an even closer eye on her when she comes in for teeth cleanings. Especially for those symptoms some people tend to overlook.

"We're looking for more abnormalities. So things like red legions, white legions in the mouth. Sore throat. If you notice a swollen node," said Dr. Tomase.

More symptoms of oral cancer are:

  • Pain in the ear, mouth, or mouth and face
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Bad breath, ulcers or red and white plaques in the mouth
  • Enlarged neck lymph nodes
  • Coughing

While most of these symptoms are pain-free, Dr Tomase says if any of those abnormalities last at least two weeks, you need to see your dentist right away.

"It's almost like a silent disease, which is why we're really adamant about looking at things like that," Dr. Tomase said.

You can prevent oral cancer by:

  • Brushing and flossing your teeth regularly
  • Refraining from smoking or chewing any type of tobacco product
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Limiting your exposure to the sun.
  • Exercising regularly
  • Choosing cancer-fighting foods in your diet
    • How you prepare these foods is also important in the prevention of cancer. Replace frying and grilling with baking, boiling or steaming and use healthy spices like garlic, ginger, and curry powder for added flavor.
  • Seeing your dentist regularly, at least every six months, and ask for an oral cancer screening to be done.
  • Conducting a self exam at least once a month.

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