Cancer survivor encourages oral cancer screenings

While traveling tough path, man from Union has reached out to others

When Hank Deneski’s doctor informed him that he’d been diagnosed with inoperable stage IV oral, head and neck cancer, the 58-year-old Union resident didn’t hesitate.

“What’s next, Doc?” he said.

Deneski isn’t someone who gives up a lot of time for self-pity, not even when he learned that the five-year survival rate for his form of cancer was 43 percent and that his specific risk factors put him in a less than 25 percent five-year survival rate category.

That was July 2005.

Since then, in addition to managing his own health, Deneski has been busy trying to make life better for his fellow cancer survivors and raising awareness about oral, head and neck cancer, advocating for screenings, which can be easily done during dental visits.

He founded the Western Ohio Oral Head and Neck Cancer Support Program, which has assisted more than 100 survivors and caregivers. Through that program, Deneski has promoted oral cancer screenings in western Ohio, an effort that expanded this year to include offering free screenings to under- and uninsured patients.

In September, the Miami Valley Hospital Foundation honored Deneski with one of its 2012 Champions of Hope Awards. One of four recipients, he was given the Person of Inspiration honor for his volunteer work, which also includes volunteering as a regional leader for the national LIVESTRONG cancer foundation and as a peer mentor for several organizations, including SPOHNC (Support for People with Oral and Head and Neck Cancer), the Scott Hamilton Fourth Angel program at the Cleveland Clinic, and Imerman Angels for Oral Head and Neck Cancer Survivors and their caregivers.

He also has survived a diagnosis of prostate cancer that came along a year after his original cancer diagnosis and dealt with the ongoing effects of post-polio syndrome, which he was diagnosed with in 1994.

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year. In the past, it was typically found in black and Caucasian males 55 and older who had a history of alcohol and tobacco use. The demographics, however, are rapidly changing. Today, more than 50 percent of those diagnosed are 18- to 39-year-old white females and males with no such history, due to an increase of human papillomavirus-related cancers. Exposure to HPV 16 and 18 infections happens through sexual contact, including oral sex and French kissing.

“Early detection is vitally important,” Deneski said. “When caught in stage 1 or 2, the five-year survival rate is more than 80 percent. Every time you see your dentist for a cleaning, your dentist should be doing an oral cancer screening.”

Deneski’s group facilitated 287 adult screenings by volunteer dentists, using donated supplies and equipment. More than 60 of those tested required a follow-up. The simple, noninvasive screenings cost only $2.77 each and took roughly 15 minutes. During oral, head and neck cancer awareness month in April, Deneski hopes to hold screenings every weekend. Anyone interested in volunteering or donating should e-mail wohnc@earthlink.net.

Deneski was 8 when he was diagnosed with polio and was paralyzed in one-third of his body. He spent five months in a Catholic hospital and went on to make a full recovery, even playing sports competitively in high school and college. He credits faith and his family with helping him recover then. Now, again, faith and family — Deneski has been married 41 years to his wife, Lil, and has three adult children and eight grandchildren – as well as friends, have helped him through his current health problems.

It hasn’t been an easy path. For quality of life purposes, Deneski and his doctors decided against treating his cancer through radical surgery, which would have involved cutting through his breast plate up to the bridge of his nose and removing his tongue. Instead, he underwent 42 radiation treatments and 46 hours of chemotherapy. In 2009, complications from those treatments led to the loss of all of his teeth and 30 percent of the bone in his jaw. He has retired from his career as a sales manager and trainer, although he’s still able to do a bit of freelance photography.

It would have been understandable to focus only on his own survival, but Deneski was driven to reach out to others facing similar circumstances. “Basically, that’s just the way I was raised. You do what you can to help others,” he said. “I’m feeling great. I thank God every day.”

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