This morning I was thinking about a topic on my way through the Sports Page and another come-from-behind win by my beloved Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (enjoy using the full tag just because I know it annoys Dodger fans.) And then I sat down to write about oral cancer.
When I started out writing a weekly column 14 years ago, I really didn’t like my chances. I wondered some about what was in store for the readers after about Week Four. Today all I needed was the Times and a certain VHS memory.
Back in early 2001 over at the Universal Amphitheater, some 2000 dentists and team members and I had the chance to hear baseball Hall of Fame announcer Joe Garagiola talk some about the National Pastime and one of its ugly secrets. Joe was asking for our help and he was very passionate; he wanted us to help him save lives.
The video I first saw around 12 years ago and then again this morning is “Tragic Choice: The Bob Leslie Story”. The villain is oral cancer...or, more accurately, the lack of oral cancer awareness.
The 10-minute film begins with said Bob Leslie sharing some of his boyhood baseball dreams. Young Leslie was fascinated by the round tin container most major leaguers carried around in their uniform back pocket. He wondered, “What is it? What’s in there? Is that the difference?”
Bob began using spit tobacco when he was only twelve and continued using it into his mid-20s just like many 80’s marquee professional athletes (who actually endorsed the stuff on network television.)
Just five months after quitting spit tobacco, Leslie, then a high school baseball coach, was diagnosed with oral cancer. The lesion inside his lower lip marked the exact location where he had held the spit tobacco. Bob’s oral cancer diagnosis came within days of his learning he’d soon be a Dad.
Oral cancer treatment can be heartbreakingly invasive and disfiguring. In Leslie’s case, it meant the removal of his chin and lower teeth. When Garagiola later asked Leslie when he was most aware of his cancer, Leslie replied, “…when I wake up in the morning I realize it’s still there. When I look into the mirror…”
A second surgery produced an even more crushing diagnosis. The cancer had invaded surrounding tissue clear up to the base of Bob’s brain. On hearing the disastrous news Leslie called friends and family, hoping they could somehow help his wife and daughter after he was gone. Leslie was 27 years old.
Bob was grateful for 6 months spent with his new daughter; he was committed to making a difference. Working with Garagiola, Bob made a video; dare you to watch it.
Five months short of his 32nd birthday, Bob Leslie died of oral cancer. And I keep seeing him as that 12 year-old little leaguer.
Leslie died within 5 years of the cancer diagnosis; the 5-year survival rate of about 50% for oral cancer is less than that of breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer. Oral cancer is the only cancer not to decline in its incidence over the last 40 years. One American dies of oral cancer every hour. 25% of the 30,000 Americans diagnosed with oral cancer every year do not smoke or use spit tobacco. In the U.S., only 14% of the population knows they’ve ever had an oral cancer exam.
I never used to think of Southern California as spit tobacco territory. And every time I speak and each time I’m doing an oral cancer exam in the office, I still see Bob Leslie.
Visit your dentist. And demand an oral cancer exam.