Tongue cancer survivor thankful for her voice and a pushy dentist

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    Leslie Handler at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/for The Pulse)

    Leslie Handler at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/for The Pulse)

    Twenty years ago Leslie Handler went for a routine dental appointment.  It was her first time with a new dentist and she remembers being annoyed at all of the unnecessary extras the dentist offered.

    “She presented me with an entire portfolio of all these wonderful things she could do with my mouth to make it beautiful,” said Handler.

    “You could put caps on, you could do whitening,” she said. “I didn’t need any of this done.”

    At the time, Handler thought the dentist was being too pushy, trying to sell extra services.  At the end of her appointment, Handler only agreed to do two things that the dentist recommended: To come back in six months for her next cleaning and to have a “teeny, tiny white spot” on her tongue checked by an oral surgeon.

    Handler says the spot was “smaller than the head of a pin.”  She didn’t feel it and she couldn’t see it.

    “I almost didn’t make the appointment because I just thought [the dentist] was being overly zealous.  But I’m a doctor’s daughter and something told me to go ahead and see somebody.

    Handler learned that the spot was called oral leukoplakia (OL), a white colored lesion that occurs in the mouth.  Most cases of OL are benign but it can be a precancerous condition. Handler was told to monitor the spot regularly.

    Handler got the spot checked and watched it grow and change, getting “bigger and angrier looking.”  She endured years of painful biopsies and mouth sores from additional prodding.

    “It was frustrating, and it was annoying and it was painful,” says Handler.  “But it wasn’t cancer! Every time [the results came back], it was benign.”

    But five years after the spot was discovered, one of the biopsies came back positive for cancer.

    Handler is the kind of person who laughs a lot.  She has a wry sense of humor and an optimistic outlook on life.  She admits that learning she had cancer was terrifying, but laughs at how she managed to make things even worse by doing her own Internet research on the prognosis for the disease.

    “It’s always a mistake because, of course, you lead yourself to the worst scenario you could possibly lead yourself to!”

    Over the past 15 years, Handler has lost track of the number of surgeries she has had, sometimes several a year, as the cancer has continued to return, spreading throughout her mouth.

    Surgeons have removed portions of her tongue, jaw, tonsils and the floor her mouth.

    “I’ve lost all the teeth on one side and this last surgery, this past July, it hit the tonsil,” says Handler.

    Handler has never lost her ability to speak but she has a speech impediment and sometimes it is difficult to understand her when she talks. She relies on email and texts and has become more of writer overall.

    While she does not downplay the toll the illness has taken, she says it is important to keep in mind how fortunate she has been.

    “If this hadn’t happened to me,” says Handler, “I don’t think I’d be as appreciative of the things I have.  I’m very grateful for an overly zealous dentist I went to see 20 years ago.”

    Handler wrote an essay for NewsWorks about how being a member of Toastmasters International helped her reclaim her confidence in public speaking.

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