Pinter opens up about private battle with cancer
By Morgan Thomas
In the 31 years that Redding actress Colleen Zenk Pinter has played Barbara Ryan on As the World Turns, her character has been in a coma following an automobile accident, survived a gunshot wound, been burned to a crisp in an explosion and imprisoned for a crime she did not commit -- the stuff of soap writers` fecund imaginations. But when Barbara was "diagnosed" with oral cancer in 2008, the script was ripped from the real life drama of the actress who plays her and fact-checked with the Oral Cancer Foundation, for which Pinter is now the spokesperson.
Warning the public about this little-known cancer and about a simple 3--5 minute screening your dentist can do has become a mission for Pinter. "The screening is painless," she said in an interview with the Westport News. "And you don`t have to take your clothes off!"
Oral cancer kills more people each year than cervical, skin or prostate cancer, yet when found early, there is an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.
She took her private health battle public first on the CBS Early Show, filmed a PSA for the Oral Cancer Foundation, a birthday commercial for the American Cancer Society and has spoken before such groups as the 2009 graduating class of New York University`s School of Dentistry.
Pinter first noticed that her speech was slurring in December 2005 but her dentist assured the then 52-year-old actress that it was just her teeth shifting. Then in July 2006, she developed a cold sore on her tongue, that would come and go, which she thought was caused by stress.
Finally, in January 2007, the actress went to an oral surgeon, who thought she had a combination of a fungal and bacterial infection. "It was not until he assured me that he had never seen a cancer that looked like that, that cancer even crossed my mind," she says. "I didn`t know there was such a thing as tongue cancer," Pinter says. "I had no risk factors: I am not a woman who`s ever smoked or was a heavy drinker. But I`ve since found out that more women are getting this cancer, which is now linked with the same HPV virus that causes cervical cancer."
Pinter received the news that she had a Stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma on her daughter Georgia`s 14th birthday. "I was in shock. I picked up the birthday cake. We had friends over. We had cake. We had presents. And at 4 the next morning, I got up and went to work." It was not until that evening that she called her husband, actor Mark Pinter, who was working in California, and her mother with the news. And she got on the Internet (as she had been warned not to do) where she quickly found the Oral Cancer Foundation`s Web site, which she credits with helping save her life. (www.oralcancerfoundation.org)
Pinter credits otolaryngologist, Clarence Sasaki, M.D., and radiologist, Yung H. Son, M.D., at Yale-New Haven, along with the Yale Tumor Board with not only saving her life but her professional life as well. "As an actor, your body, your voice and your face are your tools," she says.
"I was scheduled for surgery at 6:30 on Tuesday morning with a doctor who was going to do a partial glossectomy (removal of part of the tongue) and a radical neck dissection. I would have been cut from my ear across my throat and had all my lymph nodes removed. It`s very disfiguring and would have affected not just my speech but my taste buds and salivary glands. Many patients, who have no taste buds, stop eating, which creates all kinds of other issues."
But she went to Yale on Monday for a second opinion and at 6 p.m. the night before her scheduled surgery, the Yale Tumor Board of 40 physicians unanimously agreed that the correct protocol for her cancer was not a radical neck dissection but a partial glossectomy of the right half of her tongue, with reconstruction. By using a flap from the left side of her tongue for reconstruction, her speech and looks would be affected as little as possible. The surgery was followed within six weeks by two brachy-therapies to implant radioactive seeds.
In between surgeries, As the World Turns grouped all of her scenes so that she could shoot on a day that worked around her treatment schedule. "The show was amazing," she says. "They could have so easily said, `This isn`t going to work for us.` They could have easily re-cast me. But I`m very fortunate. We`re family on that show."
After the surgeries, viewers started flooding the mailboxes at fan Web sites, wondering what was wrong with Pinter`s speech, speculating that she had had a stroke.
Pinter had already decided to go public with her cancer and went to the show`s executive producer Christopher Goutman in August 2007 to see how he would feel about writing cancer into her character`s storyline. He told her that he had been about to ask her the same thing.
As the World Turns won a 2008 Sentinel Award for "Barbara`s Oral Cancer" from Hollywood, Health, and Society, a division of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center. Colleen and Mark Pinter were surprised when the Connecticut Bar Association honored them with the 2008 Distinguished Public Service Award for their charitable work on behalf of various charities, including Bread & Roses, the Mark Twain Library and the Oral Cancer Foundation. This year, Pinter was given the Harry S. Strusser Humanitarian Award for Public Service from the New York University School of Dentistry for her advocacy on behalf of oral cancer awareness and screening.
"When you decide to become a walking, talking ad for a cause, you don`t think about things like awards but when they come along, you realize that someone has heard you. I get so much mail -- snailmail, Facebook, e-mail -- from people who`ve gotten screened and diagnosed early because they`ve been made aware of this little-known cancer."
The recurrence rate for oral cancer to return within two years is about 50 percent, and Colleen`s did come back in October 2008. She has since been treated again at Yale, going through another round of radiation therapy this past spring. She is now cancer-free.
As she told Woman`s Day, "The irony is that my cancer could have been found and treated so easily long before it progressed. My doctors say the tumor had been growing for two-and-a-half to four years before we found it. I beg everyone who`s reading this, please, go to your dentist and ask for an oral cancer exam. It takes less than five minutes, and it could save your life."
On Thursday, Nov. 5, Colleen Zenk Pinter will be the featured speaker at the Women & Company Caring Connections luncheon, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport.
Tickets are $125. For more information, contact Susan Quaranta at (203) 563-0738 or e-mail email@example.com.