VCU helps put smile back on face of oral cancer patient

Published: Apr. 28, 2014 at 10:07 PM EDT|Updated: May. 8, 2014 at 8:51 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A visit to the dentist helped a Richmond woman who discovered she had cancer. Five years later, she has her smile back.

Vera Underwood was making a routine visit to the dentist for her teeth cleaning when a simple toothache led to the cancer discovery.

"I said, well doc, while you're back there is it my tooth making my throat hurt or my throat making my tooth hurt?" Underwood asked. The dentist examined her and immediately sent her to a specialist. "He never used the 'C word,' but he suspected it," Underwood said.

Underwood had cancer of the right tonsil and it had spread. She went through chemotherapy and radiation.

"Radiation therapy quite often will destroy the salivary gland tissues," said Dr. Michael Huband. "Once a person loses their saliva, they lose their protection against dental decay." Huband is one of two doctors who Underwood says changed her life.

Within two years of beating the cancer, Underwood's teeth started rotting and falling out. Radiation treatments destroyed her teeth and gums. Embarrassed, she hid her face behind a mask for years.

For Underwood, a recent visit to an operating room was actually a blessing.

"I was very uncomfortable with my appearance. It was disgusting to me," she said. "I didn't want to scare anybody. You know, that's the first thing people see, your mouth."

Underwood hadn't eaten a real meal in years, and couldn't chew anything.

"Losing the hair, most women think that is such a devastating part of cancer and the treatment. Hair comes back most of the time, not your teeth," said Underwood.

Underwood beat her diagnosis at the Massey Cancer Center and turned to the VCU School of Dentistry to put the smile back on her face.

"Often times, people will be come shut-ins, quite literally, or it affects their lives so much," said Dr. George Deeb. "You have people like Vera. On our first consult I noticed she was wearing a mask." Deeb and Huband performed reconstructive surgery on Underwood. They removed the rest of her teeth to allow her mouth to fully heal.

Even a day before the surgery, the thought of showing her condition was paralyzing to Underwood. When asked if she would show the mouth she was still hiding behind a mask, Underwood sat in silence, her eyes full of fear. She said, "I have no teeth. I prefer not to, please."

While she was under anesthesia, the doctors put in implants along the top and bottom of her mouth. They look almost like screws. Her perfect new teeth are attached to the implants.

She was in the surgery chair for nearly eight hours and was in tears when she finally saw her new mouth for the very first time.

"Wow! Hmm. Where's the food?" she asked through laughter.

Two weeks later, she's still healing and can't wait until she gets to eat steak for the first time in years.

"When I can finally chew, it's going to be ultimate," she says through laughter. She does a lot of that now, with no mask in sight.

"[I feel] absolutely wonderful and it does not hurt. Feels wonderful," Underwood says while smiling.

Going to the dentist just twice a year for teeth cleanings is what saved her life. A surgery like hers can be very expensive and unfortunately her insurance wouldn't cover it, despite the fact that the cancer and treatments caused her condition. She says she got a great deal at VCU Dental care and through loans was able to afford the life changing procedure.

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