Understanding Head & Neck Cancers
- A 35-year-old dancer from New York City was shocked to learn what she thought was a harmless canker sore in her mouth was actually stage 4 tongue cancer.
- It’s much more common to know someone who has a head or neck cancer, like tongue cancer, now-a-days than it was several decades ago. And that’s because of its strong connection to HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
- It should be noted that it’s unknown what exactly caused Katie’s tongue cancer. She told TODAY that she hasn’t “lived a life” that would lead her to develop tongue cancer.
Katie Drablos noticed the lingering canker sore on the back of her tongue in late 2020. She didn’t think much of it at first.Read More
The mouth sore caused her minimal pain at first, only when she would eat, but at the start of 2021, the pain had become constant.
The increased pain caused her to visit urgent care, but the doctor there thought it was just a cold sore and prescribed her antibiotics; the medicine made her feel better for a bit, but the pain would eventually return.
“I came home from teaching, and my throat was hurting a little bit,” Katie said. “I was like, ‘I need to go to the doctor again because this isn’t going away.’”
She visited an ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor) in New York City who had a “strong suspicion” that Katie’s canker sore was more than what it appeared to be.
“Within one second she (the doctor) was like, ‘We’re going to biopsy this right now,’” Katie recalled. “(I thought) this was more serious than I predicted.”
Katie would soon learn that she had stage 2 tongue cancer (meaning there was no cancer outside her tongue), something she never expected. The plan was to have the lesion removed, as well as a neck dissection, which would ensure doctors could get all the cancer out in the case that the lesion was “deeply implanted,” according to TODAY. Katie tongue would then be reconstructed.
She had the surgery in March 2021, and by April 1, which also happened to be her 34th birthday, Katie got the call that cancer was in fact found in her neck. This escalated her cancer to stage 4. This meant she would also have to go through chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“I was just trying to get myself mentally prepared for treatment,” she told TODAY. “My tongue definitely freaked me out, the look and the appearance of it.”
Katie finished treatment in June 2021, and while she still has trouble with eating and drinking and has had to relearn how to use her tongue, she’s been able to return to dance, something she considers to be “the best medicine.”
“My body is magnificent, how it can heal,” she told TODAY. “I’ll feel really sad about some of the losses but then also incredibly grateful and with a deeper sense of gratitude than I ever had pre-cancer.”
“I was not in the age group or having lived a life that would leave me to be privy to something like oral cancer,” she said. “By sharing my story, maybe someone can feel less alone and feel more able to express their feelings and reach out if they need help so we can all get through the tough days and keep finding joy.”
Tongue Cancer: Understanding the Cause of Head & Neck Cancers
It’s much more common to know someone who has a head or neck cancer, like tongue cancer, now-a-days than it was several decades ago. And that’s because of its strong connection to the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
It should be noted that it’s unknown what exactly caused Katie’s tongue cancer. She told TODAY that she hasn’t “lived a life” that would lead her to develop tongue cancer.
“From the 1980s to the 2010s, the rate of HPV-related head and neck cancers has gone up by 300 percent,” Dr. Ted Teknos, a head and neck cancer specialist, and president and scientific director of University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, told SurvivorNet during a previous interview.
The vast majority of humans in the United States — both men and women — will eventually get infected with HPV, according to Dr. Allen Ho, a head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai.
“The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer-inducing,” he told SurvivorNet. “Probably less than 1 percent of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that somehow their immune system fails to clear, and over 15 to 20 years it develops from a viral infection into a tumor, and a cancer.”
It’s unclear whether HPV alone is enough to trigger the changes in your cells that lead to head and neck cancers, or whether this happens in combination with other risk factors like smoking.
Of course, some people who develop head and/or neck cancers have no known risk factors for the condition. Genetics can play a role in this cancer, too.
Head and neck cancers are unique in that they’re usually preventable with the HPV vaccine. And that’s why those eligible should get vaccinated against HPV, SurvivorNet experts have told us.
The vaccine is typically given to children before they are sexually active, as HPV is transmitted through sexual contact.
And contrary to some detrimental misinformation circulated online, the HPV vaccine is entirely safe.
There are virtually no side effects with this vaccine, Dr. Jonathan Berek, director of the Women’s Cancer Center at Stanford Medical Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
It is “incredibly safe,” he added.