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Oral Cancers Gaining a Voice: March 31, 2014

Although they rank sixth most common among cancers in the U.S., oral cancers don’t generate much talk.

 “Because it's a smaller population. But it’s actually one of the roughest treatments to go through,” says Stacey Brill, speech therapist with Lee Memorial Health System.

Difficult because people who get it may lose the ability to eat or speak. Head and neck cancers include any cancer outside of the brain, above the collarbone.

Larry Brundage was diagnosed in 2011.

“They did biopsies and they determined it was base of the tongue cancer” says Brundage.

Radiation and chemo took its toll. Larry kept his tongue, but went on a feeding tube.

“He’s got muscle weakness, fibrosis had built up from the radiation. The stiffer the muscles the more difficult it’s going to be to swallow,” says Brill.

Oral cancers are on the rise, increasing for the fifth year in a row. While the survival rate is better than many other cancers, the after-affects can be felt for a lifetime.

“Of course my goal was to eat. It was a year in a half since i had any solid food.

Which is why Brill created a pathway for patients, to help them stay nourished during and after treatment.

“When we get them newly diagnosed, before they have had surgery or before they have had radiation actually, we’re getting better outcomes because we’re able to identify right off the bat if there is a problem.

Like Larry, many people have to develop new muscle patterns and relearn to eat and drink.

“It was slow gains and then she gave me the confidence to actually take the first bite, so to speak,” Brundage says.

Because head and neck cancers have a relatively low profile, fewer people know about its specialized therapy.

“About ten years ago I absolutely fell in love with this population; realized that there was a need,” says Brill. “They weren’t being serviced to their fullest potential.”

It comes with giving voice to people in need.