Levon Helm died last week of oral throat cancer. Helm was an Arkansas farm boy who hit it big in rock and roll as the drummer for The Hawks who later morphed into The Band, a group that gained fame backing the legendary Bob Dylan for years. Helm was a great singer, most notably on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” After the group broke up, Helm continued to make music and acted, playing Loretta Lynn’s Daddy in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
I grew up listening to Dylan, and The Band. I attended my first Band concert in Woodstock, NY in 1973. I loved Levon’s voice. As a dentist, it pains me to know anyone who suffers with oral cancer. It is a horrible disease.
The oral cavity (mouth) and the upper part of the throat (pharynx) have roles in many important functions, including breathing, talking, chewing, and swallowing. Oral cancer can and does impair or take away these functions. And, without these functions, you die.
The treatment for oral cancer is not pretty. People with throat cancer are usually treated with either surgery or radiation therapy. Depending on the tumor stage, a combination of these treatments may be used. For radiation therapy, the technician makes a mask of your face. And, there are holes in the back of the mask for bolts. You lay on a table and get your head bolted to a table. Then, radiation is shot into the tumor, every day, five days a week. The procedure takes only about five minutes but most patients experience panic when restricted in this way. Breathing is difficult and you cannot sneeze or move a muscle. And, you can’t get off the table. The procedure leaves the skin raw and leaves the patient with small black holes where the radiation enters the body.
And, it is called radiation THERAPY for a reason. Therapy does not guarantee a cure. Therapy is an ATTEMPTED remediation of a health problem. Sadly, that is all it was for Helm. An attempted remediation of a health problem.
Oral throat cancer robbed Helm’s of his country drawl. It also robbed him of his money. . “You can’t afford to pay your bills and buy your medicine—you’ve got to give up one or the other,” Helm said. “I got behind on my mortgage. The only way I could hang onto the place was to declare bankruptcy.”
Oral cancer is curable, if diagnosed early. That is why I insist that my patients have an oral cancer screening at least once a year. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. The next time I or your hygienist offers you an opportunity for oral cancer screening, think of yourself, your family and Levon Helm. I’m sure Helm would agree that $45.00 is a small price to pay for peace of mind and the ability to be alive today.
There’s a great big beautiful smile waiting for you at the Durham Smile Center