Taking the Bite Out of Jaw CancerEvery time Jeff Jensen brushed his teeth, his gums would bleed. He knew he needed to see a dentist but things like work and turkey hunting kept getting in the way. When he finally did make an appointment, Jeff was referred to an oral surgeon in Waterloo for removal of an impacted wisdom tooth. In so doing, the oral surgeon took a routine tissue sample for evaluation. A week later came shocking news. The tissue sample showed that Jeff had oral cancer. It was curable, but complicated by the fact it had spread to his jaw bone.

“Right away I thought the worst,” says Jeff, who was 47 at the time. “I remember wondering if I could make it another 10 years.”

Jeff was referred to the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Iowa. There, Gerry Funk, MD, an otolaryngologist and a member of the head and neck oncology team that includes, radiation and medical oncologists, pathologists, nuclear medicine specialists, radiologists, dental and swallowing specialists, evaluated his biopsy and CT scans. Jensen's surgical plan included removal of the tumor, reconstruction of his jaw with a free tissue transfer of bone from his leg, and postoperative radiation therapy.

Otolaryngologists at the University of Iowa perform about 80 free tissue transfer reconstructive procedures every year. The procedures are most frequently done in conjunction with removal of a head and neck tumor. The procedure is also done for a variety of other reasons including traumatic injuries and poor wound healing. Funk has personally performed over 1,000 free tissue transfers during his career. The head and neck oncology team manages over 300 new cancer patients every year.

Jeff shares his experience with oral cancer treatment at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Although it was hard to remain positive, Jeff and his wife Kathi, had confidence in the team at the University of Iowa.

"They kept telling me I was a young and healthy man and that everything would be fine,” he says.

Using the free tissue transfer technique allowed Funk’s team to remove the cancer and then re-build Jerry’s jaw to look and function like new. The cancerous tissue in the mouth and jaw bone were removed and replaced with soft tissue and bone harvested from Jeff’s lower leg.

“This technique allows for superior reconstruction of many defects that would not be able to be reconstructed using other techniques,” Funk says. “It enables us to be aggressive against the cancer, knowing we can replace large amounts of bone and soft tissue that need to be taken out in order to optimally treat the patient.”

The surgery went well and, after radiation therapy, Jeff has been cancer-free and functions normally with regard to his speech and eating. As a Hawkeye football fan, he was especially pleased to finish radiation therapy just in time for him to watch Iowa defeat in-state rival Iowa State in 2006.

“I’m really grateful to Dr. Funk for handling the situation so I could go on with a good quality of life.”

This story first appeared in Health at Iowa, our online publication for patients and visitors that features the latest information about ground-breaking treatments and the lives they change.