Representative Ron Barber: Free of Oral Cancer Thanks to Early Detection

Age: 69Tucson, Arizona

I was diagnosed with oral cancer just a few days after election night in November 2012. I was extremely fortunate that my cancer was caught early, at stage 1. This meant that the only treatment I needed was surgery to remove the tumor and that my outlook is very good. My experience taught me that it is vital that you pay attention to what your body is telling you and that you don’t delay getting anything unusual checked out.

It was the fall of 2012 when I noticed what seemed like a blister on my tongue that didn’t heal quickly. I tried a number of topical treatments, but it just wasn’t going away so my dentist sent me to an oral surgeon to have it biopsied.

I received the biopsy results at an extremely stressful time-seven days after election night, which was during the 11 days it took to complete the vote count for my district, the 2nd Congressional District of Arizona.

I immediately contacted the University of Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson, which is one of the country’s premier cancer centers. Fortunately, the center had recently established an ENT [ear, nose, and throat] team specializing in the treatment of cancers like mine, so I felt I was in the best place possible.

The medical team told me that because my cancer had been caught at an early stage, I should have surgery as soon as possible and that I would need regular follow-up visits. My tumor was removed just before Thanksgiving, and I was fully recovered in time to be sworn into my first full term in Congress on Jan. 3, 2013.

For the first year after surgery, I had follow-ups with my ENT oncologist at the University of Arizona Cancer Center every four weeks, but now it is every eight weeks. My doctors say we could probably go longer between visits, but to be on the safe side they want to continue with this schedule. They also tell me that if anything changes at all I should call and be seen right away, so I keep a pretty constant watch on what’s going on. Every now and again, if I bite my tongue or have a little sore, I’ll go and be checked, but it has always turned out to be nothing.

One of the things that helped me to get through my experience, other than my fantastic specialty medical team, was the enormous support I got from my wife, my children, my grandkids, and my friends. Sometimes it is hard to ask for help or to accept it, but when you are dealing with a disease like cancer, you really can’t hold back – you just have to welcome the support, and I got plenty of it.

By sharing my story, I hope to remind everyone, in particular my colleagues in Congress, that cancer is not an abstract national problem but something that can happen to anybody in the blink of an eye. We are all susceptible. I tend to be kind of stoic, but the truth is that inside I was thinking, is this going to be the beginning of the end? What I learned, though, was that our knowledge about cancer is growing and we have so much good research, and more to come, that I hope it is the beginning of pathways to prevention, treatment, and cure. But to achieve these goals, we need to stay on the cutting edge, and to do this we need more funding for the National Institutes of Health.

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