Oral Cancer Survivor Educates During Head And Neck Cancer Awareness Month
- Matthew Snowden, 38, was diagnosed with a type of oral cancer (stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma) after developing a painful ulcer-like spot on the side of his tongue.
- Oral cancer, also called mouth cancer, is the broad term for cancer affecting the inside of your mouth. It is the most common type of head and neck cancer.
- We do not know the cause of Snowden’s cancer, but we do know that there is a link between oral cancer and HPV. The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is an extremely common virus spread through sexual activity that nearly every sexually active person will get at some point in their lives.
Matthew Snowden, 38, didn’t think much of it when he developed what he thought was an ulcer on the side of his tongue that was causing discomfort. After all, he had just had his wisdom teeth removed a few months prior. But his pain didn’t go away after a couple dental visits, so his dentist decided to perform a biopsy. That’s when he found out he had oral cancer.Read More
Snowden was diagnosed with stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma just four days after he found out his wife was pregnant with their second child. So, he was determined to fight his cancer with all he had.
He underwent surgery to remove all of the tumor, and his doctors reconstructed the missing part of his tongue to restore its function. He then had 36 days of radiation as a precautionary measure to lessen the chance of a recurrence followed by months of physical therapy.
Today, the father of a 16-year-old son and 1-year-old son is completely recovered and on a mission to educate others about oral cancer.
“Something that a lot of people do not realize is that oral cancer affects everything,” Snowden said. “It not only affects your mouth and the way you eat and talk; but because of where the tumor is located, it also affects the muscles in your neck, shoulders and arms.”
Snowden also wants to emphasize the importance of dental hygiene and encourage others to keep up with their routine dental checkups.
“Get your dental checkups, and pay attention to any problems or spots that develop in your mouth,” Snowden said. “When I first noticed the ulcer in my mouth, I thought it was all in my head, and if I had not gone in for a checkup, I could have waited until it was too late.”
Understanding Oral Cancer
Oral cancer, also called mouth cancer, is the broad term for cancer affecting the inside of your mouth, according to the Cleveland Clinic. More specifically, it affects the lips, first parts of your tongue, mouth roof and floor. It can also affect your oropharynx which is the last part of your tongue and roof of your mouth, your tonsils and the sides and back of your throat.
In honor of head and neck cancer awareness month, we’d also like to point out that oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer. Generally, we see oral cancers developing in people age 60 or older, but – as we saw in the case of Snowden – they can occur in younger people as well.
Oral cancer can look like a common problem with your lips or in your mouth, so it’s important to bring up any changes to your health with a doctor. Common signs of oral cancer can include:
- lip or mouth sores that bleed easily and don’t heal within two weeks.
- rough spots or crusty areas on your lips, gums or inside of your mouth.
- numbness, pain or tenderness on your face, neck or mouth that occurs for an unknown reason.
- difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your jaw or tongue.
- unintentional weight loss.
- an earache.
- chronic bad breath.
Oral Cancer and HPV
We do not know the cause of Snowden’s cancer, but we do know that there is a link between oral cancer and HPV. The human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is an extremely common virus spread through sexual activity that nearly every sexually active person will get at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. Most people with the infection do not know they have it and never develop symptoms or health problems from it, but the virus is spread via sexual activity and can manifest as warts on your genitals or mouth.
When people talk about HPV and cancer risk, they tend to focus on cervical cancer. And while it’s true that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, people should also be aware that HPV puts both men and women at risk of developing several other cancers as well, like oral cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina, penis, anus and throat.
Oral and throat cancers are both on the rise in young, non-smoking adults, and Dr. Allen S. Ho, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says HPV is the cause.
“The fastest-growing segment of the people developing oral cancers are young non-smokers,” Dr. Ho told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “HPV, a very common virus, one responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers, is now identified as a cause of this rapid rise of oral cancers.”
Luckily, we have the HPV vaccine. And while Dr. Susan Vadaparampil, the associate center director of community outreach, engagement and equity at Moffitt Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet there are few medical strategies that totally prevent against getting cancer in the first place, she emphasized that data from countries with high rates of vaccine coverage show decreases in HPV-related pre-cancer and cancer – particularly so in the case of cervical cancer.
“We have a safe and effective vaccine to prevent HPV-related cancer,” Dr. Vadaparampil previously told SurvivorNet. “It is widely available, and costs are typically covered by private or public insurance.”
According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine is recommended for all preteens (both girls and boys) 11 to 12 years old in two doses administered between six and 12 months apart. The series of shots can also be started as early as 9 years old.
That being said, the CDC also says that teens and young adults through age 26 who didn’t start or finish the HPV vaccine series also need the vaccine. And people with weakened immune systems or teens and young adults who start the series between the ages of 15 and 26 should get three doses instead of two.
Additionally, the HPV vaccine is sometimes administered in adults up to 45 years old, but it is not recommended for everyone older than 26. Still, a person older than 26 might decide to get vaccinated after talking to their doctor about possible benefits even though it is less effective in this age range since more people have already been exposed to HPV by this time.
But why are people hesitant to protect themselves and their children? One reason may be that there is a myth that that the HPV vaccine can cause autism.
“The HPV vaccines do not cause autism, there’s always a risk of some vaccine-related side effects … local site injection pain, some redness, some swelling,” says Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. “There are no syndromes such as autism or other neurologic symptoms that have been linked to the HPV vaccines.”
Dr. Geiger also wants people to remember that, although you might not want to think about it, your children will likely participate in sexual activities at some point in their lives. Refusing to vaccinate your children denies them available protection from HPV-linked diseases, and that should be more important than not wanting to think about your kids ever having sex.
“The fact is that the majority of us are going to participate in sexual activity at some point in our lives … it’s unreasonable to think that just because your child isn’t engaging in sexual activity now that they won’t later in life.”