The need for speed is a way of life for 56-year-old Bernie Martin. As the owner of a brand consulting agency outside of Pittsburgh, PA, his career collides with his love for race tracks as he provides marketing and communication support for many racing-associated events.
During the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in July 2018, Bernie experienced persistent headaches and swelling around impacted wisdom teeth and knew it was time to have them removed.
As soon as the oral surgeon made an incision, there was a red flag — an issue with the tissue in Bernie’s jaw. He finished the extraction and sent a sample for biopsy.
While conducting media interviews at the race track, Bernie saw a multitude of missed calls from his oral surgeon. Bernie soon learned the biopsy results showed a cancerous tumor that needed immediate treatment.
“It was a whirlwind,” recalls Bernie. “Within days I saw a cancer specialist and was scheduled for surgery.” But, Bernie wasn’t exactly confident about the care he was going to receive and expressed his concerns to a Cleveland-based colleague he met through the racing circuit; he suggested Bernie come to Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion.
“Imaging showed that Bernie had advanced squamous cell cancer of the oral cavity that affected the tissue and jaw bone,” explains Brandon Prendes, MD, a head and neck surgeon at Cleveland Clinic. “Because he didn’t have any symptoms, it was a bit of luck that he needed his wisdom teeth removed along with an astute oral surgeon who noticed the suspicious tissue.”
Bernie decided to switch his care to Cleveland Clinic.
“My experience at Cleveland Clinic was off the charts; I got all of the answers I needed and I trusted my surgical team,”
Dr. Prendes reviewed the case with his colleague Brian Burkey, MD, a head and neck surgeon. The two developed a plan to remove the cancer and reconstruct his jaw bone through a free flap reconstruction — a procedure in which tissue and its blood supply (artery and vein) are surgically removed from one part of the body and transferred to another area for the purpose of reconstruction. A bone from Bernie’s leg would be used to reconstruct the jaw.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Bernie had surgery. “Dr. Burkey began by extracting the cancerous tumor and jaw bone, lymph nodes that could be a potential cancer risk, and an additional tooth. He then implanted a titanium plate in Bernie’s jaw for alignment,” explains Dr. Prendes. “I removed his right leg fibula to replace the missing jaw bone, completed the free flap reconstruction, and used skin from the leg to fill in the area on the inside of his mouth where the additional tooth and tumor was removed.”
The oral cancer journey was just a pit stop in the racetrack of life for Bernie. After rigorous physical therapy for his leg, you’d never know he had a bone removed or that he had oral cancer.
“The culture and care at Cleveland Clinic is amazing. The caregivers are insightful and take care of your mind as well as your body,” says Bernie. “Because of the care I received, I healed beautifully, my mind was eased and I’m back doing what I love.”
Head & Neck Institute