Educating others about oral cancer is new mission for cancer survivor

Mary Prorokovic would like to talk to you about your mouth.

Specifically, she would like to know if you are familiar with the symptoms of oral cancer and whether you’ve discussed them with your dentist or primary care physician.

And it’s not just you: Mary will talk about oral cancer with anyone who will listen, from salespeople on the phone to friendly faces on the street. It’s that important to her.

“I just stop people randomly,” she says. “If people misunderstand me, or if I’m in an elevator or a restaurant, I tell people what happened to me — strangers, anyone who shows me kindness. Because I didn’t know. I really think that a lot of doctors don’t know.”

Mary, now 55 and living in Port Chester, New York, was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2013. She went to the dentist about a cracked tooth, which eventually needed to be pulled. That developed quickly into a hole in her mouth, and then the oral surgeon had more bad news: a carcinoma.

An otherwise healthy nonsmoker, Mary had never thought of herself as a someone at risk for oral cancer and had never discussed it with her dentist.

After a 12-hour surgery to remove the carcinoma by doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Mary chose to have proton therapy at ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, New Jersey. There, she underwent 30 proton treatments.

“I am forever grateful for the warm welcome, the expertise,” Mary says. “My daughter is an X-ray tech and she said, ‘Ma, I never saw anything like this. There is not an ounce of negativity.’”

Even after treatments have ended, the effects of oral cancer follow patients in their daily lives. Mary is open about the challenges she faces, big and small.

Oral cancer, she says, has taken away a lot of her personal life. She describes frequent changes of clothes and using packs of napkins to deal with drooling, brushing teeth more often and more carefully, and always choosing restaurants that have soft or sauced food on the menu. No more sandwiches, no more fast eating.

Most difficult, she says, as a devout Catholic, is that she can no longer take communion. “That has been the hardest of hard.”

“Every day is a battle,” Mary says, “because you’re wondering if people will understand you. I wonder if people will think I look funny, if people will think I’m a smoker. I have to talk louder now. This is not who I am. This is the loud Mary.”

But Mary describes all of this in her clear, slow and practiced diction without any kind of bitterness or self-pity. She just wants people to know.

“Because I have faith and proper care, I have overcome the battle,” she says. “I’m very open about my journey because nobody every talked to me about oral cancer.”

Mary urges each and every one of those strangers and casual acquaintances to be their own advocates and ask their doctors for oral cancer screenings. She urges dentists and hygienists to ask the right questions, look at every patient’s mouth and hand out pamphlets.

“It’s just something my heart wants to share. It’s how I repay what I’ve been given.”