The doctors kept insisting that Joe Cromwell, of Virginia Beach, had TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), even though he had textbook symptoms of throat cancer: pain in his jaw and head, trouble swallowing, slurred speech.
But Cromwell had never been a smoker or a drinker, so no one thought the 55-year-old was at risk for oral cancer, which afflicts nearly 50,000 Americans annually, according to the American Cancer Society.
Finally, after 18 months of misdiagnoses, in late 2015, Cromwell’s primary care physician found a spot on Cromwell’s tongue, which ended up being stage IV cancer.
Cromwell endured a 13-hour surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
“It took a good solid year to get to recovery,” his daughter Melissa Wilson, said. “He wants to be able to save someone else.”
That’s part of the mission of an upcoming fundraising event sponsored by Unify Health and Fitness Studios in Virginia Beach, which is owned by Wilson and her husband Brian.
April is oral cancer awareness month, and on April 29th, the gym will host a health fair to raise awareness for oral cancer. The Virginia Dental Association will provide free, five-minutes screenings to people. There will also be a silent auction, live music and a kids’ bounce house.
“Our goal is to educate, to get the word out there,” Melissa Wilson said. “Maybe it can save somebody else from going through this.”
The need to screen
Oral cancer awareness starts with proper screening at the dentist’s, and not all dentists are accustomed to performing them. “It [screening] needs to be mandatory like breast checks,” Wilson said. “By the time they are finding oral cancer, it ends up too far [advanced].”
“So many patients are not getting a complete oral cancer screening. It takes three to four minutes, a small amount of time to save lives,” said Linda Miles, the co-founder of the non-profit Oral Cancer Cause. “Insurance doesn’t cover it. They [dentists] don’t know how to do it. They don’t want to use the C word and scare patients.”
Another reason dentists don’t do exams is the potential embarrassment over diagnosing false positives. “They send lesions to be biopsied, and oftentimes the lesions are [something like] burned cheese pizza [on the mouth],” Miles said. “Unfortunately, patients are not getting advanced and complete oral screening.”
Miles encourages people to ask their dentists to do the exam. “If they don’t feel all the glands in neck, checking under the tongue or the back of tongue [they haven’t done it],” she said.
Oral cancer can affect the tongue, tonsils, gums, lips and oropharynx — the middle part of the throat behind the mouth — and other parts of the mouth. According to the ACS, oral cancer is twice as likely in men compared to women, with approximately 9,700 annual deaths.
Oropharyngeal cancer, a form of oral cancer, is on the rise because of its link to HPV, the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease. HPV-related oral cancer has increased three-fold over the past twenty years. Children are increasingly getting vaccinated for HPV, and it’s recommended they do at age 11 or 12, according to the CDC.
The Oral Cancer Cause
Many people don’t realize how debilitating oral cancers can be, and the OCC was founded, in 2013, to help alleviate the burden. “It’s grueling surgery, and a lot of people are out of work for a long time,” Wilson said. “There are high copays and many people need dental work after surgery.”
Wilson knows this first-hand, with her father’s experience. For six months after his cancer surgery, he couldn’t work. “Someone from OCC heard about my dad and sent up money at Christmas, and they’ve done that several times during his rehab,” she said.
Miles recalls another person the OCC helped—a 35-year-old mother of two who wasn’t able to care for her children while she was undergoing treatments, so the OCC stepped in and paid for a nanny.
Funds raised during the April 29th fundraiser will go towards furthering the financial assistance and public awareness efforts of OCC in the Virginia Beach community.