MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — This month doctors are trying to raise awareness about a type of cancer that dentists are often the first to notice.

It’s oral cancer and it affects the tongue and other parts of the mouth. The disease is typically found in people who smoke, and in its late stages because it is easy to overlook the signs.

Brooke Vitense says she’s always been good about going to the dentist regularly, but when she was 26-years-old her dentist sent her to her doctor.

“Almost two years to the day now, I noticed these little white spots under my tongue. They weren’t painful. They just kind of showed up. I don’t know I just noticed them,” Brooke said.

A biopsy revealed Brooke had pre-cancerous cells. She had surgery to remove the spots on her tongue.

“The pathology came back from that initial surgery that there was a cancerous tumor — stage one tumor in the spots that were removed,” she said.

Brooke had a second surgery — this time to remove a third of her tongue. For weeks, she couldn’t talk.

“Especially right after the surgery, not only was it really painful to talk. But no one could understand me,” she said.

Dr. Deepak Kademani performed Brooke’s two surgeries at North Memorial Medical Center.

“Some of the signs and symptoms of oral cancer can be pain, swelling, numbness,” he said. “You may have a shift in your bite.”

Problems swallowing and ear pain are signs too.

“We are seeing a lot more patients who are younger, without the traditional risk factors for oral cancer which are smoking and drinking,” he said.

Now that Brooke can talk again, she has plenty to say.

“I never in a million years would have thought I had oral cancer,” she said. “It’s very important to me to make sure more people are aware and are on the lookout for it.”

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. The American Cancer Society estimates about 48,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, and about 9,000 will die from it. Also, more men are diagnosed with it than women.

You can learn more about oral cancer at the American Cancer Society’s website, and at oralcancer.org.

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