Katie Easterbrook of Bristow, Virginia was enjoying her first year of marriage when she got the shock of her life. She remembers the dates vividly. "We were married in April 2009, and I was diagnosed in November 2009," she says.
While having dinner with her husband and family, Katie bit her tongue and at first thought nothing of it.
But after a few weeks, the healing process was suspiciously slow, and Katie noticed a tingling sensation.
Katie says she was sent to an ear, nose and throat specialist. He determined there was a mass and he needed to do a biopsy to determine what the mass was. After several pathologies, they determined that it was a very rare cancer called adenoid cystic carcinoma.
This rare form of oral cancer originates in the salivary glands and usually strikes people twice Katie's age. She was only 28 at the time.
Surgery followed at Georgetown University Hospital with ENT surgeon Dr. Kenneth Newkirk. He removed the cancer and, along with a plastic surgeon, rebuilt Katie's tongue with a skin and nerve graft from her wrist.
Katie says, "It is totally amazing the things they can do."
After surgery to remove both the tumor and surrounding lymph nodes, Katie underwent radiation, and then rehabilitation to learn how to use her new tongue and minimize any speech impediment.
She says, "When I did get my voice back it was such a joyous feeling because I could talk. The first words were 'I love you Nick,' to my husband."
Dr. Newkirk says Katie was lucky because her family doctor recognized something was wrong. For many with head and neck cancers, their symptoms go undiagnosed. The American Cancer Society estimates 7,880 Americans die of oral cancer each year.
Dr. Newkirk: "I think most folks think they get a little mouth sore, or they have a sore throat, and they don't think anything of it, and they think it is just a common cold or cold sore. And they don't do anything to have it checked out."
Dr. Newkirk says smoking or heavy alcohol use is the usual cause of tongue cancer. In Katie's case, it was a cell mutation. But anyone who has concerns can get a quick, and painless screening.
In fact, Georgetown University Hospital is offering a free screening on Saturday, May 14th from 9am-Noon. You can register by calling (202) 444-1351. Or, click here.
The screening is made available through the Yul Brynner Society., they hope screenings like these will raise more awareness for head and neck cancers. Katie also advocates for these types of cancers with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Organization International and The Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation.
Symptoms of an oral cancer include:
*Sore in the mouth that doesn't heal after two weeks
*Pain in the mouth, tongue or throat lasting more than two weeks
*Trouble swallowing or chewing
*Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
*Unusual bumps in the mouth or on the tongue