The good news is, it’s not cancer.

It's not cancer

It’s not cancer

I had an odd white spot on the underside of my tongue. I’ve never smoked (not even a single inhalation from a single cigarette), I can count on two hands the number of alcoholic drinks I’ve had, and on two fingers the number I’ve actually finished.

But I’m fifty-four and female, which increases my risk of oral cancer from just the ever-freakin’-fun of getting older.

So I took my little tongue spot and went to the dentist and had a cancer screening. That was negative, but was also surface only—and the tech doing the screening couldn’t scrape the little film of white skin off of my tongue, which turns out to be a big deal.

Big, as in, they called a maxillary surgeon while I was standing there and made an appointment for me for right then.

I was, back in the day, an ER nurse. There are signs that tell you things are not happy. A smiling nurse moving you to the front of the line in a crowded ER waiting room and saying, “The doctor is going to see you next” is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of Bad Signs.

I knew that face, because I’ve made that face.

So Matt, the kid, and I drove down the road a bit, signed into the maxillofacial surgeon’s office, waited for the room to open up, and the doctor did a biopsy under local.

I am not an easy patient. I have to know things, and I have to know what things MIGHT be as much as what they are.

So I talked the doctor into giving me his differential, which was verrucous leukoplakia vs. proliferative verrucous leukoplakia. Define these as “very bad” vs. “fucking nightmare.”

I waited out the week, doing massive research into both. Read the medical abstracts, learned the vocabulary, dug into causation and tests and treatment and outcome and stuff I could do to improve my odds no matter what the diagnosis was, as well as steps I would have to take if the diagnosis of “fucking nightmare with a twist of we-found-this-too-late” came back.

The biopsy came back. It’s neither verrucous leukoplakia nor proliferative verrucous leukoplakia. And it’s not cancer, but it’s not friendly, either. Ignored, it could become cancer. I’ve chosen not to ignore it and play Russian roulette with my future.

So I have to go back in three weeks to have the entire area excised to clear margins.

After that, I should be fine—but regular checkups and any necessary follow-up will become a part of my routine.

What I’ll be doing in three weeks:

I’ll be awake. Again. This will be done locally again.

I’ll get to watch them work (which is something I actually like—though there are disconcerting moments when a bit of your tongue goes floating past your field of vision at the end of a pair of forceps and you think Eep!).

I have learned that while the tongue heals quickly, the pain once the anesthesia wore off actually topped out giving birth to a 7-lb 13-oz kid without so much as a Tylenol in my system at the age of 37.

Please note that four hours of hard labor is no picnic. Giving birth after twelve years of NOT giving birth is much more of not a picnic. (Just in case anyone told you it was, you know.)

And this time, the little incision will be a bigger incision, the small area of pain will be a bigger area of pain—so this time, when the nurse asks me if I’d like to have a small scrip for something to help with the first couple of days, I will NOT breezily say, “No thankth, I’ll just tough thith out with Tylenol.”

You’re laughing. YOU try talking around six stitches in your tongue and anesthesia and sounding remotely like yourself. 😉

Why I didn’t just give this a quick “I’m fine” and move on.

The little white patch under my tongue just looked like the white skin you get on the inside of your cheek after you accidentally bite down on it while chewing. You take a fingernail, you scrape off the white tissue, and you go on your way.

I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to the underside of my tongue. TRY biting that.

So I tried the same thing with the patch under my tongue that I would have tried with a cheek bite. Dragged a fingernail over it lightly to remove the gunk. It didn’t scrape off. I got out a toothbrush and scrubbed at it. No change.

Furthermore, it felt a little like the aftermath of drinking tea that’s too hot, or getting a bite of pizza with nuclear cheese.

I found it the Friday before last. It could have only been there a day or two. How do I know this?

I’m religious about brushing and flossing, and I use a dental pick to remove plaque two or three times a week. I found this when I was doing that. It wasn’t there the last time I’d done a full cleaning, just a few days earlier.

But here’s the BIG DEAL, and how it matters to you.

Most of the time, little lesions like the one I found are painless. And they really, truly, don’t look like anything that matters (at least not when you catch one just a couple days after it appears).

They can appear on the cheeks, gums, roof of the mouth, tongue—if it’s soft tissue and it’s in your mouth, it’s fair game.

So if you look inside your mouth, find a little patch of white skin that looks like not much of anything, and doesn’t hurt—but you can’t scrape it off by lightly dragging a fingernail over it, or clear it away with your toothbrush—you need to see a dentist right away.

If you’ve ever smoked or used smokeless tobacco regularly, or drank alcohol regularly, or been a female in your fifties, that goes triple.

Doing this could save your life.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

38 comments… add one
  • Grace Jun 26, 2015 @ 22:52

    So glad it’s not Cancer. Praying that the op will go well and the painkillers will do as advertised and nix all the pain. God bless.

  • Vannessa Jun 26, 2015 @ 8:30

    WOW, Holly!! Just the waiting period of ‘it could be’ is a nightmare in itself and greatly deserves breathing space. Super happy it’s not cancer! Now rest and be good to yourself.

  • vatech_jenn Jun 25, 2015 @ 9:32

    Relieved to hear the good news – thanks for sharing this with us. Thinking of you during your time of recovery and adjustment – you are a blessing to us all!

  • Eva Jun 25, 2015 @ 4:24

    I agree on all the posts above. I am glad you turned out to be ok. I can`t imagine the horror you must have gone through. Take care of yourself Holly, you certainly deserve, and probably need too.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Many hugs and a wish for a quick recovery.

  • Jenny Jun 25, 2015 @ 1:51

    Thank you for sharing this Holly. I had no idea! Especially about women in their 50s being more susceptible to this. Eek!! So thankful for you it is not cancer. Take this opportunity to REST and look after yourself!!

  • CM Jun 24, 2015 @ 20:53

    Glad you caught it early. Take care of yourself and get better!

  • JanetB Jun 24, 2015 @ 15:14

    When something is different, always have it checked. And never take their word that you are too young for something like that. Two stories, the first, a new co-worker (age 25) told me about the lump in her breast she found 6 months earlier. She had went to a surgeon, but he said to go live her life and not worry about it. I helped her to see someone to check it again, and it was breast cancer. It had already spread, and despite treatment, she passed away 5 years later. Another person had a hoarse voice before the age of 30. And even the surgeon just said it was an overuse injury. Finally surgery was done to scrape off a callous on the vocal cord. Cancer was found. The moral of the story is when in doubt, take it out.

  • Jennifer Jun 24, 2015 @ 14:09

    So glad to hear it’s not cancer! Coming from a family with a high history of cancer (although no personal risk factors of smoking or excessive drinking), I know that “It’s not cancer are remarkably soothing word to hear. And you’ll get no laughs from me about talking with oral stitches–I had mine cut out two weeks ago and they were not fun!

  • Penny Jun 24, 2015 @ 12:54

    Thank God it isn’t cancer and that it was caught in time.

  • Sylvia Jun 24, 2015 @ 12:39

    I, too, am so very thankful you ran with getting this taken care of and didn’t put it off. By all means take all the time you need to get back in top form. I will certainly still be here. You have deposited so much into so many lives, now receive it back in thousands of good thoughts, wishes and prayers.

  • Timothy Hicks Jun 24, 2015 @ 12:10

    Holly, really glad to hear it wasn’t cancer, and that you caught it in time. I’ll be praying for you too.

  • Susi Matthews Jun 24, 2015 @ 12:02

    Oh my goodness! Well, bless your heart (and I do mean that quite literally!) I’m very glad it wasn’t your worst prognosis and agree whole-heartedly with the, “if you see something odd, GO get it looked at!”

    Rest up and take it easy, regardless of all the emails piling up. Sleep is a totally sensible reaction to stress and then relief. And no chortling here about having to talk funny with stitches!

  • Candace Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:35

    Important info to share and thanks for doing so!

  • Chris Olson Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:31

    Oh, wow. Emotions. Memories.

    Had melanoma myself, left wrist, hiding under my watch. The big C. Kills most people who get it in under five years. Lucky for me it was shallow, and they got it all before it could reach a good blood supply.

    Had a skin graft. Pain was tolerable with tylenol until they took the compression bandage off the graft. Had the kids in the room when they did it.

    At the time, I was a black belt in kung fu. My kids regularly saw me spar, and a usually could show you black and blue bruises in various places over my body.

    They offered me a pain killer before they took the bandage off. I non-chalantly refused. They took the bandage off. My kids had the wonderful sight of seeing their father almost pass out from the pain. When I could speak, I told them I had reconsidered the pain killer.

    So yeah. The take away from all of this — TaKe the f*in’ pain killers. A wide excision is unpleasant.

    If you ever meet me, feel free to ask to see my cool scar … 😉

    Christopher Martin Olson

  • Donna Kennedy Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:10

    May the rest of your tongue journey be a quick and healing one. Thanks for your detailed explanation. I’ve long wished I’d been a nurse to help with child-raising and family health.

  • Pamela Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:09

    Thank you for sharing all of this. Things can move quickly or be more serious than they first appear. I’m glad to hear it wasn’t cancer, and that you’ll be taking care of you. (INTERNET HUGS)

  • Aleta Kay Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:05

    So glad to hear you are okay. Sorry you had to go through all of that, though. Yet even in your own torment of pain, you decided to share with us signs to look for in ourselves that could be an indication of the same malady. Thank you for that. I’m in my 60’s and never even heard of such a thing. My prayers are with you.

  • Michelle Miles Jun 24, 2015 @ 11:02

    So glad to hear it’s not cancer! Feel better, take care and get well soon! We’ll all be here when you get back. 🙂

  • Ken Casey Jun 24, 2015 @ 10:52

    Heal quickly, Holly! We all wish the best for you. 🙂

  • NIna Jun 24, 2015 @ 10:42

    thank God for that! i was where you are a few years back except it was in my left breast, discovered by a mammogram.

    i am SO very happy to hear you are okay and are taking steps to continue to be that way. take all of the time you need — myself (if not all of us) will still be here when you get back.

    here’s hoping you heal quickly, painlessly and worry-free 🙂

  • Rose Gardener Jun 24, 2015 @ 10:41

    I’m highly impressed you were so proactive, noticed it and got it treated straight away. Sending you good vibes for an analgesic-modified, successful second op and hope you have no further troubles from your white spot thereafter. Let the working world wait until you are ready to return. Best wishes.

  • Claudette Jun 24, 2015 @ 10:28

    So glad that you found the problem and are taking steps to get it fixed. You’re right. A little thing that looks harmless can get deadly. Keeping you in my thoughts and fingers and toes crossed that your recovery is quick and less painful than feared.

    Medical is more important than social or work. Take care, Holly, and come back when you’re ready.

  • Michelle Owings-Christian Jun 24, 2015 @ 10:24

    I’m so glad it’s not cancer. Not happy about the having it removed piece — however, not playing Russian roulette with your mouth is also a good deal. Healing thoughts and prayers. Keep us posted!

  • Marie-Claire Jun 24, 2015 @ 8:05

    Big grin and high fives from Dorset UK!:)

  • Holly Jun 24, 2015 @ 7:49

    Thank you so much. I’m relieved.

    My response to relief is apparently to sleep almost constantly. I needed the sleep, but I think I was awake about six hours total yesterday.

    • Margaret Jun 24, 2015 @ 12:25

      The tension that was holding you up is gone. Let sleep happen. It’s a good way to heal.

      HUGS. So glad it was neither worst nor second worst nightmare, both most likely because you caught it so early. Take care of yourself. Do what you have to do.

  • BJ Steeves Jun 24, 2015 @ 7:31

    I am thrilled to hear that! I will pray that everything goes very well and that the pain threshold is minimal. Please keep us posted.

  • Angie Jun 24, 2015 @ 1:14

    All the best Holly. So glad it’s not malignant. Take your time and do what you need to do, we’ll still be here.
    A x

  • melinda (justmel) Jun 23, 2015 @ 22:28

    I just leaped through fifty emotions from anxiety to relief in the space of about five minutes as I read your June 17 post and then this one. What an awful week for you! Like everyone else, of course, I’m profoundly glad it’s not cancer. Sending hugs and wishing you the very best in the coming weeks.

  • Connie Cockrell Jun 23, 2015 @ 21:24

    Hugs on the favorable outcome. I’m with Deb in the comments, I never knew that about a white spot. Like the others commenting, I’ll be looking closer at the inside of my mouth.

    Welcome back and wishes for a speedy recovery.

  • Rez Jun 23, 2015 @ 20:49

    Glad it’s not the Big C. Hope all of it comes out all right.

    (And admit it, how many of you ran to the mirror and checked your tongues?)

  • Dan Allen Jun 23, 2015 @ 17:07

    Writing is on the list of maybe one, not more than two or three greatest things humans can by acts of will. Yet, some of the most meaningful aspects of human life are outside words, not even reachable by words. We do our best to describe some of these things through words, and great words can be made that way. Still, those great things themselves are in places that words cannot reach or come from. They are in another dimension. I have experienced huge piles of that stuff with you, Holly. Right now, I’m pitching in the words I can find, because this is one those times just showing up is one of the mains we can do, and the only to show up here is by writing some words. I wish there was a way to pitch in some of that great stuff of life I have been getting from you, because it’s just wonderful, and I want everyone’s life to be filled with it. So, YES! it’s great that there is not horrible news. I was really scared and angry at what I thought you might have had dumped on for no good reason. Now, we can carry on with our important work, that make life something I can hardly bare risking anything might take away even a moment of it. It’s a life that I love. I got it, because you showed me the way to it, by the of how you live and things you have to me and done for me. It’s a lot, and I am just one of thousands. The world needs you, at least a lot of us do. I am so sorry you had to endure the recent fear. It’s so great having you here. I like like to say, God speed, but in your case, I am sticking with , “great thinking, Holly Lisle!”

  • Amy Jun 23, 2015 @ 17:00

    Ditto on being glad it’s not cancer. And I’ll be looking at the inside of my own mouth more carefully from now on. I can’t claim a lifetime of the same level of clean living you’ve practiced.

    I wish you rapid recovery. I suspect you’ll need to postpone your next chat, but maybe the timing will work out.

  • Kirsten Jun 23, 2015 @ 16:11

    What a relief that it’s not malignant! You are so brave to face this down and not take any chances on it becoming worse.
    I hope your recovery is quick and painless, and that before you know it this whole ordeal becomes a distant memory.

  • JT Jun 23, 2015 @ 14:36

    Thank you for sharing what you learned and hope that the pain of the next procedure passes quickly.

  • Deb Salisbury Jun 23, 2015 @ 13:59

    Oh, wow! I never dreamed a white spot in the mouth could be cancerous.

    Many hugs to you, and wishing you a quick recovery from this ‘little’ and the upcoming surgery.

  • Wanda Jun 23, 2015 @ 12:51

    Holly, Thank you for sharing. I’m happy for you and your family that it is not cancer. I’ll be praying that your procedure will be pain free as possible and that your surgeon performs with skill and precision.

  • Hannetjie Joubert Jun 23, 2015 @ 10:11

    I’m SO glad it’s not cancer!!! And I’m REALLY glad you caught it in time! You’ll be in my prayers and I’ll be thinking of you!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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