Tennis star Nicole Gibbs shares how dentist discovered rare form of cancer in her mouth

The Stanford grad said it took a dental appointment to take notice of a bump that had been in her mouth for years.
Tennis player's dentist discovers rare cancer
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/ Source: TODAY
By Eun Kyung Kim

Nicole Gibbs plans to attack her cancer with the same tenacity she brings to each tennis match.

The 26-year-old American tennis star announced earlier this week that she had pulled out of the French Open to undergo surgery for salivary gland cancer.

The discovery stemmed from a routine appointment last month with her dentist, who asked about a growth on the roof of her mouth. Gibbs said she had gotten used to the bump, which had been there for years.

"I was just really fortunate that my dentist, Dr. Kevin Lee, was able to identify it correctly as something that should not be there, and he encouraged me to get a biopsy and it came back as positive for a form of cancer," she told TODAY's Natalie Morales.

"It was definitely earth-shattering for the first few days where we were still trying to figure out what's what exactly."

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Salivary gland cancer makes up less than 1% of all cancer diagnosis in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Gibbs said her story should serve as a cautionary tale to seek medical and dental care regularly, and definitely ask about anything unusual.

"I think it's a good reminder for self-advocacy. I think we tend to know if there's something that's off or wrong," she said.

The 26-year-old Stanford University graduate announced her diagnosis earlier this week, ahead of her surgery Friday.

Gibbs credited her fiance, Jack Brody, for helping her keep a cool head through the past few weeks — and for keeping her off the internet.

"It was bad. I saw one thing that was like, 'mouth cancer — 17% survival rate.'" she said. "The rule was he was our Googler, so he would process the information and bring it to me."

While she stayed away from the web, Gibbs maintained her sense of humor — even naming her tumor "Roofus."

"We thought that was appropriate," she said. "It definitely makes it easier if you view things lightly. So yeah, we gave him a name and he's getting evicted on Friday."

Nicole Gibbs, shown here from January's Australian Open, hopes to be back on the courts in time to qualify for Wimbledon this summer.Getty Images

Gibbs said she feels lucky that her type of cancer is highly curable and that her treatment plan involves only a single surgery.

She touched on her outlook earlier this week in a tweet announcing her withdrawal from the French Open.

"Fortunately, this form of cancer has a great prognosis and my surgeon is confident that surgery alone will be sufficient treatment," she wrote. "He even OK'd me to play an extra couple of tournaments these past few weeks, which served as a nice distraction."

Gibbs said she hopes to return to the court soon enough to qualify for Wimbledon in July.