It Happened to Me: An Overdue Dentist Visit Revealed Mouth Cancer

What started out for John Wilson as a long-procrastinated trip to the dentist for a simple check-up ended in a surreal odyssey through the complexities of head and neck cancer.

What started out for John Wilson as a long-procrastinated trip to the dentist for a simple check-up ended in a surreal odyssey through the complexities of head and neck cancer.

Wilson’s journey from cancer patient to cancer survivor began in January 2016 when his dentist referred him to an oral surgeon to have some teeth pulled.

“When the doctor looked into my mouth, he said, ‘I’ve seen this before; I believe you have squamous cell cancer in your gum,’” Wilson says. “It was a low point in my life. I was pretty bummed out. … I knew I had to go home and tell my wife, Donna, ‘Guess what—I’ve got cancer.’”

The surgeon referred Wilson to an ear, nose, and throat specialist near the couple’s home in Landenberg, Pennsylvania, who said he could operate but preferred to send him where he really needed to go—Jefferson. Within two weeks, Wilson and Donna met with head and neck surgeon Dr. David Cognetti.

“I felt lost,” says Donna of the diagnosis. “I felt lost—until we came to Jefferson.” After the consultation with Dr. Cognetti, she came away with newfound optimism. “I thought, ‘We got this; he’s going to be fine.’”

Wilson felt similar hope as Dr. Cognetti explained the surgery and treatment plan. “He told me, ‘You’re going to go through a little rough patch, but you’re going to be OK.’ I remember looking in his eyes and seeing the confidence, and from that point, I knew I was going to be OK.”

That “rough patch” included a 14-hour surgery that consisted of a mandibulectomy—surgery to remove the jaw bone and soft tissue along with the cancer—and free-flap reconstruction—plastic surgery to rebuild the jaw using a piece of bone from a lower leg. While Dr. Cognetti worked on Wilson’s jaw, otolaryngologist Dr. Howard Krein took a small piece of bone from his fibula, as well as an artery and vein, to perform the facial reconstruction.

He told me, ‘You’re going to go through a little rough patch, but you’re going to be OK.’

Through the entire ordeal, Donna was kept apprised of the operation’s progress every hour—something that reassured her. “After it was done, I got a big hug from the doctors, and that’s when I knew everything went well,” she says.

Because the surgery can cause severe swelling and difficulty breathing, Wilson had to have a tracheostomy tube. Although he woke from surgery feeling like he had been “run over by a truck,” he says, he started to recover quickly.

“I had a good experience in intensive care—the nurses were great. The next day they moved me upstairs, and there was physical therapy,” he says. After six days in the hospital he proved he was able to eat on his own (“mashed potatoes and gravy and processed, mushed up turkey stuff”), so he was allowed to go home. With the help of the visiting nurses Jefferson arranged, Donna was able to handle the wound care and temporary tracheostomy tube.

Within six months, the 63-year-old construction engineer was back to normal—in top physical shape, walking between six and seven miles a day at work. Intricate dental work to replace his missing teeth came about a year and a half later. Oral & maxillofacial surgeon Dr. Daniel I. Taub fixed implants into his mouth so that he was finally able to eat his first solid meal since the operation—an Italian hoagie. “I was thinking about that Italian hoagie for months,” Wilson remembers.

“I’m very fortunate—very lucky to be alive,” Wilson says, noting he is now cancer-free. “Doctors Congnetti and Krein were the saving grace for me. It was a fantastic, happy ending.”

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