by Angelica Gentile
Dr. Michael Contardo intends to break the silence surrounding his own personal survival of oral cancer with hopes of raising awareness and helping others diagnosed with the disease.
Forty-three percent of people diagnosed with oral cancer will not survive more than five years, according to statistics from the Oral Cancer Foundation. An oral cancer survivor himself, Contardo, who practices in St. Joseph and is a resident of Sartell, has defied these odds. Fourteen years cancer-free, he continues to practice dentistry using the tools at his disposal to instruct his patients in preventative oral health and performing oral-cancer screenings.
The month of April was Oral Cancer Awareness Month, and Contardo looks forward to April 2014, when he plans to extend his dental expertise to members of the wider community in the form of free oral screenings. These screenings consist of a white-light exam looking at oral soft tissues, the feeling of lymph nodes, called “palpation,” and use of a special tool called a Veloscope Vx, which helps with early detection of cancerous and precancerous oral spots.
The necessity of such screenings cannot be overstated. In the U.S. alone, oral cancer claims 8,000 lives, killing one person each hour, 24 hours a day.
Contardo’s diagnosis came as a shock, especially since he has no family history of that type of cancer.
“That’s the scary thing,” he shared. “It was completely out of the blue.”
Contardo began to be concerned when an area on his lymph nodes swelled from the size of a blueberry to the size of a golf ball within two weeks. A CT scan revealed the mass, but did not show the primary site of the growth. A biopsy revealed the mass to be cancerous and showed the primary site of the cancer to be the base of the tonsils. When the cancer was diagnosed as Stage 4, Contardo decided to seek medical attention at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
“It was a bleak outlook,” he said of his prognosis. “There was lots of head shaking, doctors saying ‘we’ll do what we can,’ but the cancer was very advanced and there was no history for this type of disease in my age group.”
Even though Contardo was “ready to accept the consequences” of his diagnosis, he battled the cancer. He embarked on his treatment journey, which consisted of several surgeries, including a radical neck surgery in order to be confident all the cancer was removed. He underwent 30 treatments of radiation, while continuing to work half days five days a week.
“I wanted to be active,” he said about his time undergoing treatment.
He maintains his active lifestyle today with snowboarding, running, ballroom dancing and enjoying the miles of St. Joseph’s Wobegon Trail.
Contardo’s cancer treatment ended up being successful. He said that making it through the first five years cancer-free is the biggest sign of a positive outlook. Besides his 14 years of being cancer-free, Contardo is also celebrating 34 years of practicing dentistry, in addition to 34 years of marriage. He and his wife have lived in the same Sartell home for 29 years and have four children, as well as four grandchildren, all living in Minnesota. He describes his experience with cancer as being “harder for the people close to you.” That was part of the reason Contardo kept his cancer experience private for so many years. He wanted to be respectful and sensitive to his family’s feelings as he went through treatment. Today, he wants to make himself available to others who find themselves in a similar situation in order to offer them encouragement and support.
Risk factors for oral cancer include age, gender, smoking, binge drinking, excessive sun exposure and a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables. HPV or human papillomavirus can also greatly increase the risk of oral cancer. According to the CDC, the vaccinations Gardasil and Cervarix can help prevent HPV, which can lead to a variety of cancers, including oral. Encouraging individuals of all ages to be aware of their health can help lead to early detection of diseases like cancer. The earlier it’s detected, the more treatable it becomes.