A bad dream turned into a nightmare for Chris Patison.
The 39-year-old father of two young girls and a detective for the University of Oklahoma Police Department in Norman, Patison woke up in the middle of the night last February to a bad dream that caused him to bite his tongue.
"During the dream I bit a gash in my tongue, and it was very slow to heal. After two months I went to my doctor and we thought it was infected, so I took antibiotics. When it still did not heal properly, my doctor referred me to a head, neck and throat doctor in Norman," he said.
During his examination, the otolaryngologist decided to run a number of tests to rule out every possibility, including cancer.
"I had a biopsy on Tuesday, and on Friday they called me to come back in," Chris recalled. "When the doctor came in, I told him, ‘That's not a good look on your face, doctor.' He was very concerned. He ordered a CT scan at Norman Regional Hospital and then referred me to a head and neck surgeon in Oklahoma City."
Chris' diagnosis was squamous cell carcinoma, the most commonly diagnosed cancer of the head and neck. In the US, 3% of cancers in men and 2% in women are oral squamous cell carcinomas. The tumor was in his tongue.
When Chris heard the diagnosis and the related statistics regarding his cancer, the otherwise healthy police officer nearly became sick to his stomach.
"This was the worst news, and I sat down by the waste basket and thought I would throw up," he said. "I was fearful that they might take my tongue out - I'm a big talker, but I don't need it to live. I don't need to talk to watch my girls grow up."
As Chris discussed his options with his surgeon, the doctor recommended to Chris that he see Dr. Greg Krempl, a head and neck surgeon at the Peggy and Charles Stephenson Oklahoma Cancer Center.
"My doctor told me that although he was qualified to remove my tumor, if it was him, he would want to have someone who deals with cancer all the time. He said Dr. Krempl was the best."
As he secured an appointment to see Dr. Krempl in the Head and Neck Clinic at OU, Chris was beginning to feel overwhelmed by his diagnosis and the practical tasks of gathering medical information and tests from all of physicians who had seen him to this point. Ellen Mattson, the Cancer Center nurse navigator in the Head and Neck Clinic, was very helpful, Chris said.
"Ellen took charge of gathering everything they needed and within hours had all the information needed to present my case to the multidisciplinary team. I walked into a room and there were specialists there who had discussed my case and determined the best course of treatment."
Chris first had his diagnosis of cancer on August 19 and on August 29 he had surgery at OU Medical Center to remove approximately half of his tongue. Additionally, Dr. Krempl removed 29 lymph nodes to determine if the cancer had spread. It had not.
Chris appreciates the team at the Peggy and Charles Stephenson Oklahoma Cancer Center that provided important support and expertise. He is especially grateful for the help that nurse navigator Ellen Mattson provided to help maneuver through the maze of treatment. Tracey Grammer, his speech pathologist, has helped him stretch his tongue to the point that his initial slurred speech is now hardly affected. And of course, he is grateful for Dr. Krempl and his team, who provide such a high level of care that another surgeon insisted that Chris see him.
He understands, too, that being near an academic cancer center makes a difference when you get cancer.
"I think being near a university with the resources like the OU Cancer Institute probably doubles your ability to have a successful outcome. They bring the research, the patient care programs and the specialists together, and that make all the difference."
Chris also credits his family and his co-workers at the OU Police Department for support. In all, Chris missed three weeks of work before he returned to light duty. Today, he has resumed his normal activities as a police detective. He will continue to be routinely followed by Dr. Krempl over the next 10 years to ensure that the cancer does not come back.
While Chris and his medical team will be vigilant, the nightmare seems to be over.
For more information about lip and oral cavity cancers, visit the National Cancer Institute patient information page, where information is available in English and Spanish.
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