Someone dies from oral cancer every hour of every day in the United States alone
Early DETECTION – early cure: Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April

Los Angeles, CA, February 11, 2014… A routine trip to the dentist saved the life of a California mom of two. The American Dental Association estimates that “60% of the US population visits a dentist every year, however less than 15% of them report having received an oral cancer screening.” Although the number of deaths each year from oral cancer is astoundingly large, it is highly curable if diagnosed early. Early detection is a key factor in oral cancer care and a 90-second dental examination could literally save your life.  Joana Breckner lives in Los Angeles and does not smoke, drink alcohol regularly, have diabetes or poor oral health and yet she developed oral cancer.  By sharing her story, Joana’s hope is that she can encourage people to get screened for oral cancer, start to understand the risks associated with it, and share how to prevent it.

Ms. Breckner is 44 years old, married and a stay-at-home mom with two young daughters.  In a routine teeth-cleaning, her dentist discovered small benign white spots on her tongue called leukoplakia and referred her to an ear, nose, throat doctor (ENT). Subsequently, she has undergone numerous surgeries removing cancerous tumors from her tongue and neck.  She had half of her tongue removed and reconstructed with skin and tissue from her forearm in a procedure called a Free Flap surgery.  She also had cancer removed from her jugular vein.  

Phillip M. Sacks DDS, Ms. Breckner’s dentist said, “I have been routinely screening my patients for oral cancer for over 40 years. This yearly visual and manual check is imperative in the well-being of patients not only for their dental health but their overall health. The technology advances in oral screenings will allow me to be even more thorough, especially as I see an increased number of patients with early signs of cancer.”

According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, “someone dies from oral cancer every hour of every day in the United States alone. Over 300,000 new cases of oral cancer pertaining to the mouth, lips or throat are diagnosed every year, worldwide.

Because of early detection by her dentist and life-saving surgeries and treatments by her doctors, Joana Breckner is lucky to be alive. 

She is grateful that she is able to eat, drink, taste and have her saliva production preserved.  She is not in pain, she is able to speak and be understood, and she is not disfigured. She underwent seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy in 2012 and again in 2013.  During this time she was on pain medication 24 hours a day and could not taste or talk. She slept most of the day and drank the same flavored smoothie 3-4 times a day.  Ms. Breckner’s goals were to brush her teeth and drink the smoothies in order to maintain her nutrition and keep her throat muscles from atrophy.  Many oral cancer patients are forced to rely on feeding tubes. 

Prior to starting her family and going through her illness, Ms. Breckner had worked in marketing at a non-profit organization. She has always done extensive volunteer work, has given back to her community her entire life and continues to today. When she became sick, her community rose to the occasion to help her. Her extremely supportive family, friends and children’s school organized meals throughout her surgery, recovery and treatment through  She would save up her energy all day so that she could spend one meal with her family.

Ms. Breckner urges people to visit their dentist every six months and ask for a screening for oral cancer if one is not already part of that professional’s service. 

From routine cleaning to 10 hour surgery – A timeline:
·            2000                                 Joana’s dentist discovers small white spots on right side of her tongue. These were biopsied by an oral surgeon. 
                                         Outcome is benign (non-cancerous).
·            2001                                 Leukoplakia surgically removed by ear, nose, throat (ENT) doctor.
·            2001-2007                       Joana was closely monitored by the ENT for changes to mouth.
·            October 2007                  Small cancerous tumor is detected and surgically removed by ENT.
·            December 2011              Cancer returns more aggressively in same area of mouth.
·            February 2012                 Joana underwent 10 hour free flap surgery at UCLA to remove cancer and reconstruct tongue.
·            March-May 2012             Radiation and chemotherapy
·            December 2012              Cancer is found on jugular vein on left side of lower neck
·            January 2013                 Cancer is surgically removed at UCLA
·            March-May 2013             Radiation and chemotherapy
·            Present                            No visible sign of cancer

Celebrities & Well-Known Individuals Diagnosed with Oral Cancer:
·                     Arts & Entertainment -Michael Douglas, Rod Stewart, Roger Ebert, Aaron Spelling, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Jack Klugman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Blass, Bruce Paltrow, Diane Von Furstenberg, Eddie Van Halen, Garry Marshall, George Harrison, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Holliday, Lana Turner
·                     Historical - Sigmund Freud
·                     Sports - Babe Ruth
·                     Politicians - President Grover Cleveland, President Ulysses S. Grant

According to WebMD, Oral Cancer frequently has no symptoms; however, when symptoms do occur, the most common include:

·         A sore or ulcer on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal
·         A lump on the lip, or in the mouth, or in the neck
·         A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
·         Unusual bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth
·         Oral pain that does not go away
·         Difficulty or pain with chewing, swallowing, or jaw opening
·         Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
·         Tooth loosening
·         Bad breath
·         Sensory loss in the face
·         Abnormal taste in the mouth
·         Tongue problems

Facts about Oral Cancer:  (According the Oral Cancer Foundation)
·         Approximately 42,000 people in the US were diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013.  This is the 5th year in a row in which there has been an increase in the rate of occurrence of oral cancers.  This is approximately 100 new individuals being diagnosed a day. 
·         When found at early stages of development, oral cancer patients have an 80% to 90% survival rate. 
·         Unfortunately, the majority of oral cancers are found as late stage cancers which accounts for the high death rate of 43% at five years from diagnosis. 
·         Late stage diagnosis is not occurring because most of these cancers are hard to discover, there is a lack of public awareness and a lack of national programs for oral cancer screenings by the medical and dental community. 
·         Risk factors include the use of tobacco, alcohol consumption and exposure to the HPV virus.  There are others as well.

A Call to Action:
·         Every person should have an annual oral cancer screening.  Ask your dentist or qualified hygienist to perform an oral exam during a routine dental visit.  Doctors have various methods and tools to perform this.
·         There is a strong link between the HPV virus and oral cancer.  If you have kids, speak to their doctor about the HPV vaccination to find out if it is right for your family.
·         If you have a sore throat or swallowing problems that persist for more than two weeks, contact your doctor or ENT for a more thorough examination.
·         To find an oral cancer screening in your area contact an organization like the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance, the Oral Cancer Foundation, SPOHNC (Support for People with Oral Head and Neck Cancer), and/or your local dentist or dentistry school.

Do we change our tune when we go through life-changing illness?

Joana Breckner reports that although she couldn’t eat or taste for a while, she was obsessed with the Food Network during her treatment and she watched it all day every day.  It saved her. She says that “everything is shades of gray and life will never be the same.  Some things are better but nothing was worth the cancer.”  She is still figuring out what her new normal is.  And now you can hear say, “OMMMM.”  Since cancer, her new habits and hobbies include practicing mindfulness, yoga, and acupuncture, eating differently, and working closely with an integrative oncology specialist in conjunction with her Western doctors.  She is undergoing major dental work, physical and speech therapy. 
Joana is living for the moment and she has enormous gratitude for so many things in her life, most of all her very conscientious dentist.


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