‘It may save your life’: Oral cancer patient warns others not to skip dentist appointments

Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look for

SAN ANTONIO – Doctors are expected to diagnose 55,000 people with oral cancer in the U.S. this year, with 10,000 predicted to die from it, according to the experts at UT Health San Antonio.

Medical experts say that common cancer spreads so fast that early detection is critical. That was the case for Tom Hansis, who felt irritation in his gums and went to get dental care at UT Health San Antonio.

“I was diagnosed on July 28 last year,” Hansis said.

Doctors saw signs of cancer under his tongue, performed a biopsy, and by the next week, he was diagnosed.

“The operation took place on Sept. 23, and here we are six months later, and I guess I’m cured,” he said.

Hansis is still working on his speech after losing part of his tongue but said this would have been a different story if it weren’t for early detection.

“I’m here. I’m alive,” he said.

Hansis’ doctor, Tiffany Tavares, is a clinical assistant professor of oral medicine at the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry.

She said people need to pay attention to the signs and symptoms.

“An ulcer or a sore in your mouth that doesn’t heal after two weeks, if you have a nodule, if you have a growth, swollen lymph nodes that aren’t going down, or persistent hoarseness, you’re noticing some voice changes,” Tavares said of the possible symptoms.

The people who are at a higher risk for oral cancer:

  • use any tobacco products, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vaping, hookah, or dip
  • drink alcohol excessively (women who have more than eight drinks per week and men who have more than 15 drinks per week)
  • are chronically immunosuppressed

In the last decade, a rise in oral cancer has been linked to Human papillomavirus (HPV).

“What we have seen an increase in is HPV-related cancers that happen further back in the mouth. The cancer in the oral pharynx happens later on in life, but you get exposed to the virus that causes cancer earlier on in life, so that’s why there’s a push for vaccination in young children,” Tavares said.

Getting checked out is as easy as going to your regular dentist or primary care doctor. However, many people had stopped going to their doctors regularly due to the pandemic.

“There was a time when they were not seeing patients. I waited a year before getting to see my dentist,” Hansis said.

He said things are different now, and he has some advice for others.

“Pay attention to that dentist who says, ‘Come in for a check-up every six months.’ Because a lot can happen in six months. It may save your life,” Hansis said.

UT Health San Antonio is taking awareness to the streets this weekend with an Oral Cancer Walk to promote awareness and early detection.

The event is from 7 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 23, at the UT Health San Antonio Center for Oral Care and Research at 8210 Floyd Curl Drive.

Registration is free for all oral cancer survivors, $30 for pre-registered adults and $15 for children ages 6 to 10.

In addition, student and faculty volunteers from UT Health San Antonio’s School of Dentistry and School of Nursing will provide free oral cancer screenings and vaccinations for human papillomavirus, a common viral infection linked to the disease. There also will be raffles, music and special guest speakers.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.