A personal battle sets the stage for public change.

by Ginny Blossom, The Los Angeles Times

Cancer survivor… As I waited for Brian Hill to show up for our interview, I mentally thought about what I was expecting, lots of facts about the disease, the goal of the new Oral Cancer Foundation he was establishing, and of course I reminded myself not to stare, since I knew that many people who had survived this disease, lived with facial disfigurements from the surgery. Imagine my surprise when a normal looking man in his fifties walked into my office and introduced himself as Brian. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that said “Rugby – elegant violence” on the front of it, with a close cropped goatee, this wasn’t the entrepreneur-turned-activist that I had expected.

Right away he started in, not about oral cancer, but about how a convergence of seemingly unrelated events focuses peoples lives to a particular task. Famous athletes, aviators, activists, inventors. Names that we all know, but who came to a particular course in their lives as a result of seemingly unconnected events and circumstance, mated with the recognition of an opportunity. Hold that thought… he’s off on another line. “Why do so many people die from oral cancer? Why don’t we hear more about it?” First, the statistics come out. “30,000 (2021 edit. Since this interview, the number has changed in 2021 to 54,250) people will be diagnosed with it this year, in 5 years only 50% of them will still be alive, that’s more deaths than from cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, skin cancer, and many others. My story both illustrates the issue, and the problem.” I settle in, listening. I don’t think that I’m going to have to ask too many questions in this interview.

He begins his story as a 19-year-old enlisted man in Vietnam with the First Medical Battalion, First Marine Division, in the late 60’s. While he doesn’t care to go into the details of his time in Vietnam on what he calls “one of Uncle Sam’s guided tours of Southeast Asia “, it is clear from our discussion that this is where he developed his interest in medicine, and a few core values that have stayed with him over the years. Not having the grades or the money to get into a medical or dental school when he returned from the war, he started out as a sales and technical rep for several big medical firms. Over the years he worked his way up through the management ranks in sales, marketing, and advertising, at companies like American Hospital Supply and Bristol Myers, finally working for several smaller firms who specialized in facial and dental implants. In 1987, having obtained a “real world degree, under the mentorship of some of the finest managers in the industry”, he started his own company, Implant Support Systems Inc. which designed, manufactured, and sold dental implants world wide. Flash forward to 1993 when his company was being sold to Lifecore Biomedical, a publicly traded firm who specializes in synthetic body fluids and implantable devices. He jokes that this was the “American dream incarnate”, “a kid with a high school education, works his way through the system, ends up as a visible, well known lecturer who has spoken at major universities and implant symposiums around the world, who builds a multi-million dollar firm from his spare bedroom, and sells it for millions of dollars while still young enough to enjoy it all.” While he says this all in an off-hand and casual way, it is clear that this is a person who has both a passion and a plan for things that he takes on.

” I was on top of the world, living in two homes, one in the resort area of Lake Tahoe, and in a turn of the century adobe in Santa Fe, New Mexico, enjoying the fruits of what we had built. Ingrid (his wife) and I spent our days skiing, hiking, climbing, flying our aerobatic plane, traveling around the world… life really couldn’t have been any better. Well, maybe not having to shovel that 400 inches of snow off of my driveway which fell the first year we lived at the lake would have made it better……….” The American dream indeed.

But then one day everything changed. Hidden under his full beard that had grown in since giving up his suit and tie, a lump appeared on the side of his neck. “I felt great in all respects, and except for this painless hard spot in my neck, I was completely without other symptoms.” He decided to visit an ear, nose, and throat specialist to have it checked out. The conclusion was that it was likely just a swollen lymph node from perhaps a tooth abscess, or some other infection. He was put on antibiotics for a week to clear things up. “I knew that my dental health was in order, after all, working in the industry, I was very dentally aware.” More than that, he had seen two different dentists in the last 12 months, one for a check up and x-rays, the other to have a crown done on a lower molar. Two different hygienists had also taken care of his regular 6-month cleanings. “I thought to myself, I couldn’t have any dental problems causing this, my dentists were on top of my oral health, and I took great care of my mouth”. When the antibiotics had no effect, a second ENT was consulted, and took a look at things. “He noticed a red patch in the back of my throat right next to my tonsil, and it was decided that a fine needle biopsy would be done of the swollen node”. A couple of days later the news that changed everything in his world came in the laboratory report. It was malignant. That red patch was a squamous cell carcinoma, which had developed on the pillar of his right tonsil, and had been there long enough to metastasize to his neck, as it turned out on both sides. “When I looked in my mouth at the doctors office with a hand mirror, there it was, as plain as day. A large red discoloration the size of a dime. It didn’t hurt. How long had it been there?” “To get to that size and start to spread to your neck, probably 18 to 30 months,” the doctor said. “Well, I’ve had people looking and working in my mouth during that period…………why didn’t they see this thing?” “The question just hung in the air, and the ENT shrugged his shoulders.”

“After I picked myself up off the floor, the questions started running through my head. I mean, the words cancer and death are used in the same sentence too often for my liking.” Brian immediately started calling friends in the medical community, and all recommendations were for him to go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Consistently rated as the premier head and neck cancer institution in the world, it seemed like the right choice. “Ingrid and I rented a small apartment next to the hospital and tried to get settled in for the long process ahead of both of us.” “When I first checked into MD Anderson, I was scared. I knew that having this cancer caught fairly late in its development, a stage 4, wasn’t