SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -

More young people are getting diagnosed with oral cancer than ever before, but Mercy has an opportunity for people of all ages to catch it early.

According to the American Cancer Society, oral or oropharyngeal cancers are the sixth most common cancer in the world.  In fact, nearly 50,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year and 7,300 die from it.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh, I’m not going to make this one’,” said Linda Cummins of Springfield.  “I’d had cancer before, so I knew the symptoms.”

After a yearlong struggle with a severely sore throat, the 57-year-old woman knew it was time to visit her doctor.

“I had blisters on top of blisters.  I was living on antibiotics.  I decided to finally have a biopsy and sure enough, I tested positive for cancer.”

Cummins was quickly referred to Mercy’s Surgery Center for back-to-back procedures.

“We removed the lymph nodes from her neck and then we removed the cancer in her throat through her mouth,” said Dr. Daniel Pinheiro.

“Because we caught it so soon, they were able to avoid chemotherapy or radiation,” said Cummins.

Now she encourages others to take part in a free screening event on Tuesday, April 8, at Jordan Valley Community Health Center.  The joint venture with Mercy helps mark April as Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month.

“The most cases of oral cancer we’re seeing are like Linda’s, where they’re on the tonsil and base of the tongue,” said Dr. Pinheiro.  “When it comes to cancers in the mouth, throat and larynx, the most modifiable risk factor is cigarette smoking.”

Other risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption and contracting human papillomavirus (HPV).

“It used to primarily be people 60 years of age and older, but it’s dropped to the 30-50 age range,” said Dr. Pinheiro.  “That’s with the advent of HPV and changes in sexual behaviors.”

Signs and symptoms include hoarseness or change in voice, swallowing problems or pain, and bleeding from the nose, mouth or throat.

“The most common symptom of one of these cancers is a lump in your neck,” said Dr. Pinheiro. “If someone has the symptoms, he or she needs to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.”

That’s exactly what Linda Cummins did.  She recently wrapped up sessions with her physical therapists at Mercy who are part of a multidisciplinary care team.

“From speech pathologists to dietitians, we help patients before, during and after treatment, and also over the long term with cancer survivorship,” said Dr. Pinheiro. “You’ll have issues along the way. We’re here to help you.”

Mercy and Jordan Valley will be hosting the free oral, head and neck cancer screenings Tuesday, April 8, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Jordan Valley Community Health Center.  The facility is at 440 E. Tampa Street.

Appointments are required for the screenings; please request a voucher by contacting either Sarah Ridinger at 417-831-0150 (ext. 1344) and sridinger@jordanvalley.org, or Amanda Gray at 417-820-3324 and amanda.gray@mercy.net.

The screenings are sponsored by Jordan Valley Community Health Center, Mercy Clinic Head and Neck Surgery and Mercy Cancer Resource Center. To learn more about cancer care at Mercy Springfield, visit http://bit.ly/MercyCancerCare.