EducationPatient Stories

Keeping Ahead of Cancer

Sometimes timing really is everything. That was the case for Kaiser Permanente member and employee Kelly Vogel. During a routine exam in May 2014, Dr. Ronald Leinassar, Kelly’s general dentist at our Gresham office, noticed a lesion on her tongue. Tests showed that the lesion was cancerous, which surprised Kelly. As a healthy woman in her 30s, oral cancer was definitely not on her radar.

Her story is not unique. Oral, head, and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer worldwide. Approximately 630,000 new patients are diagnosed annually, resulting in more than 350,000 deaths per year. Early detection is a key factor in beating this form of cancer and achieving a healthy outcome, as Kelly found.

In June, less than a month after Kelly’s visit to the dentist, a surgeon removed part of Kelly’s tongue and the lymph nodes in her neck to evaluate for cancer. Fortunately, the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes, so Kelly did not require radiation or chemotherapy. She is now cancer free and thriving in her busy life as a mother and a surgical technologist at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center.

Here are some tips from Dr. John Holland, oral surgeon at Kaiser Permanente’s Glisan and Skyline Dental Offices, on what you can do to minimize your risk of developing these types of cancer — as well as warning signs to watch for.

Reducing Your Risk

The most obvious way to reduce your risk is not to smoke. Excessive alcohol consumption also increases risk. Genetic factors beyond our control play a role, but we should all do what is within our control to maintain a healthy mouth and body.

Know What to Look For

Many times oral, head, and neck cancer doesn’t have symptoms that you can detect. Cancerous and precancerous lesions do not always hurt. So be aware of persistent sores in your mouth that don’t appear to be healing after 4 to 8 weeks — especially if you have a history of tobacco use. Other symptoms of head and neck cancer can include difficulty or painful swallowing; new-onset numbness of the face, tongue, lip, or chin; change in voice quality; and neck swelling.

Early Detection Is Key

If you receive routine dental care, your providers can keep an eye out for precancerous lesions. These lesions can be tested and, if found to be precancerous, can be treated or removed so they never turn into cancer. At Kaiser Permanente, our dentists and hygienists are trained to do a comprehensive head and neck exam, looking for any swelling, lesions, masses, ulcerations, or abnormal coloring that could be cancerous or precancerous.

Remember, for most cancers — including oral, head, and neck — early detection and prevention can be the key to good health. And Kelly’s story is an important reminder that we all need to be vigilant.

“I don’t fit the profile for oral cancer. That was the last thing I would have thought was going on,” said Kelly, noting that the lesion was difficult for her to see and not painful. “The dental exam was obviously the first step in getting me on the road to diagnosis and recovery.”

Learn more about how early detection can be a lifesaver by watching the video.