Cancer victim, family hope to spread awareness about disease
By RACHAEL GRAY
Last spring when Phil Kemp had a sore in his mouth he was prescribed antibiotics. After the sore didn't go away, he got a second opinion and found out he had stage four cancer. It already had spread to the bone.
Almost a year later, after surgery in October 2010, and now undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Kemp is on the mend.
Jennifer Kemp-Espinosa, Kemp's daughter, thought the surgery would be the hardest part.
"He had lost a lot of weight before the surgery, and we were worried he might not make it," she said.
But after the projected 14- to 18-hour surgery lasted only 11 hours, Kemp-Espinosa said the surgery aftermath has been the toughest on her dad and family.
Kemp is fed through a tube and has difficulty swallowing. He can only drink water. Kemp had to regain his balance after surgeons took bone and skin from his leg to repair his jaw.
Through Kemp and the family's experience, Kemp-Espinosa and her sisters, Tiffany Guerrero and Lisa Gonzales, hope to spread awareness of mouth cancer, which often isn't caught until it's severe.
According to EverydayHealth.com, the combination of tobacco and alcohol use is the main cause of many head and neck cancers, including oral cancer. Poorly-fitting dentures can trap substances in between the dentures and the mouth and be a source of irritation and inflammation. Over a long period of time, this combination can cause chronic inflammation, which brings on cell damage. If changes in the cells start to grow too fast for the body to repair, they can become cancer cells.
Kemp-Espinosa said the family was unaware of the connection between dentures, alcohol and smoking, and the possibility of mouth cancer.
"If we had known dentures had anything to do with it, we would have gotten him checked right away," she said.
Kemp said the sore started back in April 2010.
"It started bothering me, just a little sore. I didn't think anything of it. Then it kept getting worse, and I thought, 'I need to go to the dentist,'" he said.
The first dentist diagnosed it as an abscess and Kemp was given antibiotics.
"I went back to (a different) dentist in August. He saw right away that it was cancer," he said.
Kemp underwent oral surgery at the University of Kansas Medical Center, then had reconstructive surgery. He was in the hospital for 23 days. His wife of 39 years, Pam, stayed by his side and his daughters and son, Brandon Kemp, and son-in-laws, Beau Guerrero and Joaquin Gonzales helped out the family.
Through awareness, the family hopes others don't have to go through what they did.
"I can remember that my dad hid it from us. He didn't want to scare us. I remember the day we found out, we were at my mom and dad's house. He said he didn't know for sure that it was cancer. Then later, outside, he told me it was cancer. He was afraid to tell my mom. It was really hard," Kemp-Espinosa said.
In addition to the emotional drain, Kemp-Espinosa said, the medical bills and Kemp's time off of work have been a financial drain.
Kemp has worked for Berexco Oil Co. for the past 18 years pumping oil. He hasn't been able to work because of the cancer. Kemp hopes to return to part-time work next week.
To spread awareness and help ease a little of the family's financial burden, a benefit for Kemp is scheduled for March 19 at the Fiesta Courtyard, 1810 Buffalo Jones Ave. The event will run from 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. A dinner will be served, and entertainment will be provided through a trivia silent auction. Music will be provided by Medina Promotions Kansas Best DJ. Donations also can be made in care of Phil Kemp to Bank of America.
Kemp-Espinosa said that during the benefit event, the family will hand out pamphlets on oral care and talk about the signs and symptoms of oral cancer. They also plan to share resources and treatment options.
The family also will be participating in this year's Relay for Life, scheduled for May 13 and 14.
Each year, Kemp-Espinosa is involved through her employer, Maurices, and participates on a team. This year, the fundraising will mean more to her and her family.
The Kemp family hopes other oral cancer victims can catch the cancer before it spreads.
"Maybe it'll help other people get there sooner. I wouldn't want anyone to go through what I went through — or what I'm going through," Kemp said.
Kemp encourages dental screenings.
"If you have any kind of sores, get them checked out right away. Catch it early," he said.
He said the experience has changed his life.
"It's definitely something that turns your life around, makes you take a little more care of yourself," Kemp said. "It's a life-changing situation."
Through the support of his family, Kemp hopes to maintain his health, day-by-day.
Tiffany Guerrero said her father is her hero.
"It's not over yet," she said.