By Alanna Kennedy
Advocate Q&A: Speaking Out About Oral Cancer
Research advocate Jeanette Ferguson is raising awareness about head and neck cancer
By Alanna Kennedy
Jeanette Ferguson was a newlywed and a 26-year-old doctoral student in pathology in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage III oral cancer. Ferguson, who had never smoked and had never used tobacco, was misdiagnosed for more than two years because as a young woman and nonsmoker, she didn’t fit the profile for a head and neck cancer patient. “Even when I had the early signs—like what turned out to be precancerous lesions in my mouth—I never thought it was cancer because I didn’t smoke,” she says. She believed all of the dentists and doctors who told her she was fine.
After her tongue became so swollen that it filled her entire mouth, Ferguson was referred for a biopsy. That’s when she finally learned she had cancer. She was treated with chemotherapy and radiation before and after surgery to remove the tumor.
Now, more than seven years later, Ferguson is raising awareness about the disease as an advocate for the Joan Bisesi Fund for Head and Neck Oncology Research. And as part of her job as a researcher at Ohio State University’s College of Dentistry, she works on clinical trials for head and neck cancer at the University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center–James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute in Columbus.
Recently CR talked with Ferguson about the challenges that head and neck cancer survivors face and the importance of demystifying the risk factors of the disease.
CR: What should people know about head and neck cancer?
Ferguson: The No. 1 thing to know is that you do not have to be a smoker to get this cancer. It doesn’t just affect middle-aged men who are alcoholics, either. I’m a young woman and I got this disease. In the seven years I’ve worked in the cancer [community], I’ve met numerous other young women without risk factors who got this disease, and the scary thing is a lot of them didn’t live.
CR: How can people help prevent a misdiagnosis like yours?
Ferguson: People need to make sure their dentists are giving them an oral cancer screening every time they go in. Dentists need to get into the practice, too, especially with the evidence that [certain strains of] human papillomavirus are directly connected to head and neck cancers. After my diagnosis, a lot of my friends and family were wondering if they even had it done. Some dentists said, “Yes.” Others were like, “Why do that? You don’t smoke.” I know for a fact that [being asked about oral cancer screening] has caused a lot of my friends and their family dentists to become aware of the need to actually start doing them on people. It takes no time. The dentist or hygienist just has to look around and feel.
Be aware of the symptoms. If you have a sore throat or if you have a sore in your mouth and it’s not going away, be [insistent] with your doctor.