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Man’s battle brings attention to oral health

David Aaron poses with daughter Ah Lan shortly before surgery to remove cancer in his tongue in February. * Photo courtesy of Aaron family

David Aaron had gone to the dentist for a root canal in December when the dentist noticed an abnormal lesion on his tongue and sent Aaron to get a biopsy. It was stage 4 oral cancer, a shocking diagnosis that put life on hold for the Maui-grown car-and-racing enthusiast.

“My cancer has changed my life in every way,” Aaron, 47, said via email from Utah, where he lives and receives treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “Everything that was normal that I took for granted is different now.”

As April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month, Aaron and his family members are encouraging people to check in regularly with a dentist and not wait till things get worse.

“This is the only body you have,” Aaron said. “Personally, I was always go-go-go and never stopping to think about my health and my body.”

Oral cancer includes cancer in the oral cavity (lips, tongue, gums, inside lining of cheeks, etc.) as well as the pharynx, or throat, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Former Maui resident David Aaron walks the halls of the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City last month. Aaron is receiving treatment at the Utah facility for stage 4 oral cancer. Aaron, 47, is trying to spread a message of oral health during April, which is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. * Photo courtesy of Aaron family

It’s not the most common form of cancer in Hawaii. Breast and prostate cancer, for example, are far more common, per a University of Hawaii Cancer Center study from 2009 to 2013. However, Hawaii has a poor national ranking for its oral cancer rates, pointed out Dr. Don Hayes, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health.

From 2009 to 2013, there were 53 deaths in Hawaii related to oral cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overall mortality rate was 3 per 100,000 people, which puts Hawaii among the 10 worst states in the nation. During the same time, Hawaii had 221 new cases of oral cancer diagnoses, with an incidence rate of 13.2 per 100,000 people. That was fourth worst in the U.S.

Factors that can lead to oral cancer include alcohol and tobacco use, poor oral health and occupational exposure to industrial materials. In Hawaii, oral cancer occurs most often among white males and females, though mortality rates are highest for Native Hawaiian males and Filipino females.

“It is estimated that tobacco and alcohol use account for about 75 percent of all oral cancers, so prevention heavily focuses on smoking cessation, no chewing tobacco-related products . . . as well as limiting alcohol intake,” Hayes said.

Aaron said he used to smoke but quit about seven years ago. However, he said, the cause of his cancer is unknown.

David Aaron buckles in before a race at the Maui Raceway Park in 2002 or 2003. *Photo courtesy of Ashley Courtney

Born in Honolulu, Aaron moved to Maui when he was 4 years old and graduated from Baldwin High School in 1987. He’d “always loved customizing cars, from paint jobs to engine modifications and racing,” and spent years working for different auto shops.

In 2003, Aaron opened his own shop, Kryptonix Motorsports, in Kahului. His team did car shows on Maui and Oahu. Aaron raced both locally and on the West Coast, and is known in racing circles as “Supa.” A 1989 Honda CRX that he built and raced himself was the first 10-second car (a term that refers to cars that can do a quarter-mile drag race in less than 10 seconds) at the Maui Raceway Park.

Within the past year, he opened a shop in Utah, where many of his relatives live. But his lifelong hobby was sidelined after his diagnosis.

“It took me awhile to wrap my head around it and process all the information when we first got the diagnosis,” said his wife, Melissa Aaron. “David and I both thought, ‘Is this curable or not?’ It was excruciating to wait for the MRI results and the first appointment.”

Doctors had to remove his tongue, where the cancer was contained.

“I have to relearn how to chew, talk and swallow,” David Aaron said. “The tongue has many muscles to it, and with my surgery they replaced it with just one. I have a trach (trachestomy) and feeding tube until I can do these things on my own again.”

But the initial surgery was actually the easiest part so far, given complications from pneumonia and infections, Melissa Aaron said.

“There is still so much that can go wrong even though the cancer is out of his body,” she said. “The unknown is the most challenging, and it’s hard to plan for the future.”

Radiation can’t start until David Aaron is well, and while scans show the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of his body, radiation is crucial to making sure it doesn’t come back, said Ashley Courtney, David Aaron’s ex-wife, who lives on Maui.

David Aaron said that the biggest challenge “is staying positive when I think about my kids, my family and friends, and how it impacts all of them.” He has two children and two stepchildren, who hope their father’s story can raise awareness.

“I want everyone to know that they should go to the doctor and the dentist for regular checkups, and not just when something hurts,” said Ah Lan Aaron, his 10-year-old daughter with Courtney. “People try to be tough, and they wait until something is really wrong before they go, and then something sad can happen like cancer.”

David Aaron echoed his daughter’s advice to get a screening.

“It’s painless, takes a few minutes and early detection of oral cancer means it could be less invasive and you might have more treatment options,” he said.

The Department of Health also recommends cutting down on smoking, chewing tobacco and drinking; avoiding human papillomavirus infection; limiting exposure to ultraviolet light; eating a healthy diet; wearing properly fitted dentures and treating precancerous growths.

For more information on oral cancer, visit cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet.

The Aaron family has set up a fundraising page at gofundme.com/david-aaron and, as of Sunday, has raised $7,110 of the $30,000 goal.

“This entire journey could never be successful without all the love, prayers and kind words from our family and friends and our faith in God,” said Patti Domingo, Aaron’s mother.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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