We had a 5:00 AM date for coffee at the airport. His shift as the onsite airport policeman started at 6:30 but after he heard my interview on the radio he was anxious to meet me in a person, even if it meant at 5 in the morning. In the interview, I shared my passion about raising awareness about oral cancer and my personal story. Sara Litzleman, a recent dental hygiene graduate, spoke about hearing my story at school and encouraging her grandmother to get another opinion on her biopsy since the sore on her tongue didn’t go away. Due to her diligence, her grandma Theresa’s oral cancer was diagnosed at an early stage. I asked Sara to be a featured speaker at the 5th Annual Oral Cancer Awareness Walk in Bethlehem.
Ken Collins listened intently to my story followed by Sara’s story and details about the upcoming walk. He sent me this email: “I heard you on a radio talk show. I want tell you what an inspiration you are to me. I’m a 3 year survivor of tongue cancer. (Stage IV). My story, like yours, was a missed diagnosis by my dentist. After hearing your interview, it gave me a much needed boost to my continued fight.
I thanked him for taking the time to share his sentiments, and asked him a little more about his story. He wanted to share it in person. Every time I flew in and out of the airport, I would message him asking if he were around. Finally, I shared my schedule with him and the soonest we could meet that worked for us both was at 5AM before my 6:05 flight.
We compared scars and challenges. It’s easy to feel a kindred spirit with someone who experienced the same barbaric radiation treatment to the head and neck. He believes his tongue cancer may have been caused by the exposure he had to chemicals helping in the aftermath of 9/11. Shortly after, he was deployed to Iraq. That’s when he noticed he had a sore on his tongue that wouldn’t heal. He almost lost his leg and was evacuated home, taking oxycontin for the pain which probably disguised the seriousness of the sore on his tongue. He had been to his dentist for 13 appointments over the next year for bridgework. Once he said to his dentist, ‘Buddy, if you touch that spot on my tongue again, I’m going to sock you one.’ Never did the dentist do an oral cancer screening or show any concern about the sore.
When he was finally diagnosed, the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Fortunately, he went to a major medical center and got great treatment.
The hour flew by and I was the last one to board the aircraft. Now, Ken knows how I like my coffee (with hot milk). We will meet again for coffee before a flight, just not before the sun rises.