A routine, semi-annual cleaning appointment at the dentist led to a cancer diagnosis for a grateful Edmonton man.
In April 2022, Jonathan Teghtmeyer, a communications co-ordinator with Alberta Teachers’ Association, drove to Petrolia Dental in south Edmonton for his semi-annual cleaning and checkup.
During his appointment, dental hygienist Vaishali Brotschi noticed a spot on Teghtmeyer’s tongue. When she asked for more information, he told her he thought it was a canker sore.
He wasn’t especially worried. The soreness wasn’t persistent and he remained largely unaffected by it.
“Once every few weeks, I would feel some sort of sensitivity there; that was about it,” Teghtmeyer told CBC’s Edmonton AM.
Dental hygienists are trained to screen for oral cancer. Brotschi noticed the lesion was discoloured — a little red, a little white, with irregular borders: all red flags, warning signs for cancer.
She recommended Teghtmeyer see a doctor. In May 2022, he had a biopsy.
The next month, an oral pathologist confirmed a diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that can form inside the mouth, throat, and lungs.
The tongue is divided into the oral tongue — the part you stick out — and the base. Cancer can develop in either part.
One of the symptoms of oral cancer is a red or white patch on the tongue that doesn’t go away.
“I had been told by the pathologist this was very treatable,” said Teghtmeyer. “They could cut it out, they would sew it back up, I’d go on with my life.”
He said the diagnosis didn’t concern him, and downplaying it made it easier to tell his wife and two kids.
“For whatever reason I maintained some composure and it worked really well,” he said, adding the children were involved in the conversation all the time.
Edmonton AM7:17A dental hygienist spots cancer in patient
At the end of summer, Teghtmeyer underwent an intensive, 14-hour surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital.
“They cut out approximately a quarter of the right side of my tongue,” Teghtmeyer said. The surgeon also removed 64 lymph nodes from his neck for testing.
A flap of skin which included a vein and an artery was taken from Teghtmeyer’s forearm and used to reconstruct his tongue.
Teghtmeyer spent 10 days in the hospital attached to about 10 tubes, including a feeding tube in his nose. He had a tracheotomy to help him breathe.
His goal, Teghtmeyer said, was to have all the tubes disconnected and removed by the end of his stay.
He wanted the tracheotomy gone first, but for that he needed to be able to breathe through his nose and mouth.
“The last thing to be disconnected was the monitor checking the blood flow to the tongue,” he said.
After the dental appointment when Brotschi noticed the spot and recommended Teghtmeyer see a doctor, he looked at his tongue in a mirror at home.
“To my untrained eye it didn’t look like much,” he said. “I couldn’t tell much of a difference from one side of my tongue to the other.”
Before the surgery, doctors had warned Teghtmeyer of two risks: he might have difficulty speaking and swallowing.
But Teghtmeyer said he had the absolute best outcome. Today he can speak and eat without problems.
He didn’t need chemotherapy and his lymph nodes tested cancer-free.
Recovery was a long road, and involved some speech therapy.
In the past, Teghtmeyer had visited the dentist every six months. Now, he goes every three months for regular monitoring.
To thank Brotschi, Teghtmeyer gave her two drinking glasses with the word “Superhero” on them. One glass has a picture of a surgical mask and the other has dental tools.
‘He’s still here’
More than a year later, Brotschi still remembers the moment she noticed the spot on Teghtmeyer’s tongue.
“I get so emotional, it’s just so crazy,” she said. “It’s very cool I was able to identify that and catch it early. And he’s still here.”
Teghtmeyer said he never expected his hygienist would be trained to look for cancer in his mouth.
“I really went to the dentist because I wanted to have nice-looking teeth.”