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I Was 26 And Healthy. Here's How A Routine Dentist Visit Saved My Life

Brooke Vitense
December 5, 2015
Brooke Vitense
Written by
Photo by Stocksy
December 5, 2015

In the spring of 2014, I was 26 years old, working toward my bachelor’s degree in human resource management, working full time, and engaged to be married. Needless to say, I was a very busy person with a lot of positive, exciting things in my future.

But brushing my teeth one day, I noticed that some white spots had developed on the left underside of my tongue. I wasn’t terribly concerned, though, because they weren’t painful. Plus, I’d always been very healthy.

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I also knew I was due for my biannual dentist appointment in a few months, so I figured if the spots didn’t go away, I’d just check with the dentist then. It couldn’t possibly be anything too serious.

But when I went to my appointment, the dentist immediately suggested I get a biopsy on the spots. Still, the likelihood that they were cancerous was very minimal, he said, given my age and the facts that I’ve never used tobacco and that oral cancer doesn’t run in my family.

I scheduled the appointment for a day early in the following month. Thankfully, everything went smoothly and I put any nagging thoughts I had to the back of my mind.

The Call From the Dentist That Changed My Life

But two weeks later I got a call from the dentist. He told me they had received the results of my pathology: precancerous. He assured me that this was manageable with surgery and that we had caught it before it was actually cancer. He referred me to Dr. Kademani, a surgeon at North Memorial Hospital in Minneapolis.

My surgery was scheduled for August 28, 2014, at 7 a.m. I woke up a few hours later and was taken to a recovery room, where I was given some pain medication and had an ice pack strapped to my face, before I was released. The first 24 hours after surgery weren’t that bad. I slept a lot, ate a little soup and ice cream, and was in minimal pain since I was still numb from surgery.

Over the weekend, however, once the medication started to wear off, the pain became significant.

After the surgery, the portion of my tongue that was removed was left as an open wound, so eating or drinking anything was incredibly painful. I was only able to consume room temperature water without being in excruciating pain.

Combined with the pain, I also had an upset stomach due to the pain medication and not being able to eat anything. So I ended up taking off over a week from work, more than expected.

I kept telling myself to stay strong, it was almost over, and I’d go back to work and not have to worry about this anymore.

How could I have oral cancer? I had never smoked. I brushed my teeth three times a day for goodness' sake!

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But two weeks after my surgery, I got a call from Dr. Kademani. He wanted me to come in so we could go over the pathology report from my surgery and suggested I bring my mom and fiancé.

My stomach sank. They don’t ask you to come in when everything looks good, and they don’t ask you to bring your family. When we sat down in the office, he broke the news: The pathology showed positive results for Stage I squamous cell carcinoma, or more simply: oral cancer. I was stunned.

How could I have oral cancer? I had never smoked or chewed tobacco. I brushed my teeth three times a day for goodness' sake! And historically, oral cancer is most common in older men who have a history of smoking (although, as I later learned, it has become more common in young people in recent years).

He told us that it was likely they had gotten everything in surgery, but there was no way to be positive without doing a second surgery to widen the margin around where they had found the tumor. That's because, depending on when the cancer is found and how efficiently it's removed, oral cancer can be fatal. Even if someone does survive, their life can be greatly affected; some survivors have had so much of their tongue removed that they can no longer eat solid foods and have a very difficult time communicating with others verbally.

But the thought of going through another surgery completely crushed me.

I couldn’t keep it together any longer and I broke down, right there in the office. I had just started eating real food again a few days earlier and was just starting to not be in constant pain. And now I needed to go back for more?

Not only were they going to take more of my tongue, but in order to prevent any spreading should the cancer come back, they would be removing lymph nodes from my neck.

This surgery would be much more invasive, and I would have to stay in the hospital for a few days.

My Second Oral Surgery and Where I Am Today

My second surgery was scheduled for September 25, 2014, at 7 a.m. This time I’d have to take a month off of work.

I was even more nervous this time — I’d never spent the night in the hospital before. But the surgery went well, and the incision on my neck was strategically made to blend in with the creases that are naturally there. I spent four days in the hospital and was then released with the drainage tube still in my neck.

I was so thankful that this time around they stitched up my tongue, so I was able to consume more than just water. A week later, I went back in to have the tube and stitches removed from my neck.

I spent the next four weeks drinking a lot of protein drinks and smoothies to try to keep myself full and take in the calories and nutrients I needed to heal and keep myself healthy.

After a month at home, I was so happy to return to work and start to get back to normal. I would have to limit the amount I could talk because I was still sore, and after both surgeries I was missing about a third of my tongue. I had to go through both physical and speech therapy sessions to help me recover.

Now, a year later, I think back on all that has changed. I am no longer with my fiancé, but I did finish school and found a job in my field of study. My speech has improved to the point where most people who meet me for the first time don’t notice the slight lisp I hear in myself. I have full mobility in my neck and the scar is barely visible.

At my most recent appointment in the beginning of September, the doctors were amazed at how well I'm healing. My scan, however, was not perfect. Some areas near my tonsils showed slightly positive, but not enough to cause serious alarm. We will continue to monitor any changes closely.

Overall, I wish more people understood that anyone can be at risk. I never imagined myself having cancer at age 27. I hope that enough light can be shed on this issue that young people will pay close attention to their oral health — and seek help if they notice anything unusual.

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Brooke Vitense
Brooke Vitense

Brooke Vitense, 28, is a Human Resources Coordinator at the Intercontinental Saint Paul Riverfront in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also consults as personal shopper at The Wedding Shoppe, a locally owned wedding dress boutique. In her spare time, she love to sew, especially costumes.