During her regular exam and cleaning, Mary Leak's dentist noticed a red spot on the roof of her mouth and recommended a daily rinse of warm water and peroxide. The dentist also told Leak to call him if the spot was still there in two weeks.
It was, but Leak never called. By the time she saw her dentist again six months later, the spot had grown and Leak immediately was referred to an oral surgeon. A biopsy confirmed cancer.
"With the type of cancer that they found, which was an aggressive type of cancer, time was of the essence," said Leak, 39, of Colorado Springs, who underwent six-plus weeks of radiation therapy and now is cancer-free. "I was lucky in that my dentist was knowledgeable and found it when he did. My dentist saved my life."
An estimated 118,000 cases of oral, head and neck cancers will be diagnosed in 2014, according to the American Cancer Society. Of those people, an estimated 14,000 will die from the disease. If discovered and diagnosed early, such cancers are highly treatable with few significant complications, doctors say. However, signs of oral cancers can be hard to identify and can mimic other minor ailments. If there's no pain, they might even go unnoticed, as with Leak.
To mark the 17th annual observance of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, Penrose Cancer Center will offer free screenings Wednesday at a special clinic. Registration is encouraged as appointment slots are limited.
Potential warning signs of oral, head and neck cancers include sore spots inside the mouth that won't heal or that increase in size, persistent pain, changes in the voice and difficulty chewing or swallowing.
While every adult should be screened, those who use tobacco and alcohol face a higher risk. In recent years, a rise in oral cancer rates among young adults has been linked in part to an increase in the prevalence of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a cancer-causing infection that can be spread by oral sex.
Free oral, head and neck cancer screenings
4-6 p.m. Wednesday at Penrose Cancer Center, 2222 N. Nevada Ave.
Screenings take about 10 minutes. Register online at penrosecancercenter.org/headneckscreening or call 776-2000.