PALO ALTO (CBS 5)  – The death of a vivacious Bay Area woman provides a powerful example of the need for early cancer screenings and prevention.

According to friends and family, Andrea Fisher was the healthiest person they ever knew.

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“I always looked up to Andrea as the pillar of health and fitness, and tough ‘Gosh, I wish I could do as much as she does,’” said Laurie Weiss

But at age 25, just a few months before she got married, Andrea noticed a sore in her mouth that would not go away. The diagnosis was oral cancer. But Andrea was young, vibrant and optimistic.

Andrea underwent treatment, had three children, but the cancer kept coming back.

“She had a lot of surgeries and I think that’s tough for mom who is so incredibly strong and healthy and athletic,” said friend Mary Salom. Salom, a cancer nurse at Stanford, said Andrea was an inspiration to everyone.

“She was not going to allow you to have a pity party for her, which was just not in her being,” Salom remarked.

But at age 42, Andrea died. The cancer had spread to her jaw as well as to other parts of her body. When it comes to oral cancer, heavy drinkers and smokers are at high risk for the disease. But Andrea was neither.

Doctors now believe her oral cancer was caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus, the same virus linked to cervical cancer in women.

“These are starting to show up in patients who are in their 30s and 40s and they’ve lived healthy lifestyles, they’ve exercise, they don’t use anything that’s considered toxic to their bodies” said Dr. John Sunwoo, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford.

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Dr. Sunwoo believes in the next several years, doctors will see more HPV-linked oral cancers than cervical cancers.  HPV-linked oral cancers, Dr. Sunwoo said, are tonsillar and also found at the base of the tongue. He stressed that early detection through screening is key.

“Early stage lesions have a much better prognosis,” said Dr. Sunwoo.

Andrea’s family believes that, in addition to screening, prevention is key, and point to the HPV vaccine.

Her friend Lisa Pagan agreed, saying if the vaccine were available and Andrea had been vaccinated, she might be alive today.

“It’s too late to prevent it for our generation, but not for the next,” said Pagan.

To fight back against this deadly disease, get a screening each year from your dentist, try to stop smoking, don’t use chewing tobacco products, and practice safe sex which includes abstaining from oral sex.

Dr. Sunwoo is concerned about people who are not regularly seen by a dentist or primary care physician.

On Saturday, physicians will provide free screenings from 8 AM to Noon at Stanford’s Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic at 801 Welch Road in Palo Alto.  Parking is free.

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