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A Trip to the Dentist & Details, Details, Details…

The other day I found myself sitting in the dentist chair for my semi-annual cleaning and checkup. I had been putting it off for quite some time because I hate going to the dentist. Let me rephrase that, I hate having dental work done. This is sort of mind boggling even to me. I mean I’ve had a bilateral mastectomy for crying out loud, been through chemo, endured numerous reconstruction surgeries (among others), successfully delivered three babies with no pain reducing medication what-so-ever (why no pain med I do not recall now). So clearly I have a decent pain threshold and yet, I really don’t like going to the dentist and I avoid it whenever possible. Go figure.

I started having tooth pain over the holidays, so I decided to not put it off any longer. But this post isn’t about going to the dentist per se. It’s about setting boundaries when out and about in the world sharing (or not sharing) cancer details.

At this latest appointment, I had a new hygienist and I really liked her. She was the chatty kind, which is fine with me; in fact, I like it because it distracts me. So of course as we were getting to know each other a bit, she inquired about what I do. Always a ‘dangerous’ question for the person who works from home, like I need to prove that I’m working or something…

“I’m a writer,” I said thinking I’d leave it at that because I didn’t really wish to go into all the cancer blogging/writing and such details. I’ve learned that sometimes less is more, plus, my mouth was wide open.

But she was persistent and kept asking me what I write about.

“I maintain a blog and also write for other various publications,” I responded between instruments and rinses.

Again, that persistent thing. “What’s your content about?” she wanted to know.

And so I finally said, “Breast cancer.”

Then, of course, there was that moment of silence. Have you ‘heard’ it?


She then almost immediately went on to call me courageous, which seemed pretty ironic because there I was sitting in a dentist chair feeling quite cowardly. Next, she went on to tell me about a family member of hers who had been diagnosed with breast cancer (early stage) a while back and whose cancer has come back. I mention this because she also said something along the lines of, so and so caught it early and followed everything by the book and still, it came back. This suggested to me once again that yes, in fact, there is a line of thinking out there that implies, ‘just catch it early and you’ll be fine’ and taking it even further; if you just ‘do cancer right’, it shouldn’t come back. It’s not quite that simple.

Metastatic breast cancer is never anyone’s fault. I just had to say that. And I did, though not in those exact words of course.

Well, there was still more cancer talk and I must give my new hygienist credit for asking me if I was comfortable with being called a survivor. For some reason she seemed enlightened about that word’s heaviness for some of us. We also had the discussion about the word ‘cure’ and how most of us for whom the situation applies, instead use NED (no evidence of disease).

Yes, we covered a lot of ground in that mostly one-sided conversation; keep in mind my mouth was mostly wide open as I was getting my teeth cleaned. Like I said, she was chatty, but mostly in a good way.

So I am wondering again, when you are out and about in the world, just how do you handle sharing your cancer details? Of course, our dentists do need to know this stuff for various and obvious health-related reasons. But the hygienist? Maybe not. It was totally my choice to share. I didn’t have to.

Do I need to work on setting sharing boundaries?

I went through something similar with my first post-chemo haircut and then again when my favorite stylist left. My hair is weird, so I often find myself trying to explain it to stylists, when in fact, I probably wouldn’t need to share the cancer side of it. So mostly I don’t share with ‘hair people’ anymore because; well, it can be tiresome after a while to keep talking about the big C when out and about, don’t you agree?

And yet, I’m torn. Why?

Because I always like to take any and every opportunity to listen and find out what others are thinking about breast cancer and also to share my opinions and yes, hopefully inform when appropriate of course.

But how much is too much and when do you just say nothing at all?

I’m still trying to figure out this thing called survivorship.

One final thing…

Regarding that tooth pain I mentioned, there’s a root canal in my near future. Oh boy.

And it’ll be with a new specialist. I wonder how many details I’ll need/choose to share this time.

How many cancer details do you generally divulge?

Do you take every opportunity to listen, learn and share, or do you prefer to ‘keep quiet’?

And okay, I have to ask, has anyone had a root canal and if so, how was it?

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Jan Hasak

Monday 26th of January 2015

Great post! I generally don't share much about my cancer, as I find that stage IV really scares people. They don't know what to say. What they do say can be very hard on me and very draining. I am sorry you had to go through that situation with the hygienist. Some people respect others' privacy, but many do not and keep asking more probing questions. Those who are more sensitive (with good emotional intelligence) tend to be my friends. Thanks for sharing from your heart. xxx


Monday 26th of January 2015

Jan, It's wonderful to hear from you! I don't blame you for not sharing when you don't have to as I'm sure it is draining for a lot of reasons. Respecting a person's privacy is important, but of course, it was my choice to share with my hygienist, though I had not intended to. I'm glad you have those sensitive friends in your life. Thank you for sharing and I am thinking of you as you move forward with the next phase of your treatment. Hope you don't have to wait too long.


Monday 26th of January 2015

A week before my mastectomy, a friend told me I should go to the dentist. I did and had to have 3 cavities filled. Because it was so close to my surgery, he didn't want to use any drugs on me. All I had was a pair of clenched hands, a string of Hail Mary's in my head and a doctor that kept me calm. He is a throat cancer survivor so there wasn't any silly conversation.

As for telling people who are new in my life - I just joined a dating site so I think I'm about to learn a lot!


Monday 26th of January 2015

Mae, Gosh I can't imagine having dental work done without some kind of pain prevention. Yikes. And yes, I will be interested in reading more about how that goes for you on the dating site. Undoubtedly, you will learn a lot! Good luck.

Shayna Dana

Saturday 24th of January 2015

I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, HER-Neu+, ER+ in March 2011. I had excellent care from caring physicians, but no one advised me to get dental work done prior to onset of chemo & radiation. I was a dental chicken with a high gag reflex prior to FBC. Now, three years since the completion of treatment (I just take Femara), I am scared to go to the dentist. Yes, I know that I need to go. I have an unreasonable fear that my teeth will fall out, or I will need extensive dental work, Due to underemployment, I do not have dental insurance, or much money to pay for treatment. I am always on top of my medical appointments (I do have health insurance). Why am I fearful of going to a new dentist?


Sunday 25th of January 2015

Shayna, I understand your hesitation and yes, fear. You've been through a lot and of course, there is the cost 'fear' too. Most dentists will do a payment plan of some kind if you ask. Hopefully you can find an especially kind and compassionate dentist. Don't worry about being 'late' or lectured to for missing checkups. Most dentists are very professional and are only concerned with the here and now. And your teeth probably aren't in as bad condition as you are imagining, but even if they are, it's their job to help you and not judge. Good luck.

Elizabeth J

Saturday 24th of January 2015

How timely! I have a dental appointment Monday. Good luck on your root canal. I've gone to the same dentist for a very long time. I was even aware the reason she had left her solo practice for a group one where she could have shorter hours a few years before, was due to her mother having breast cancer. (I think a gossipy hygienist had told me.) During chemo, surgery, and radiation, I ended up missing cleanings and check-ups. To my amazement, youngest daughter actually scheduled her own appointments. But, when the dentist asked about me, each time she just said, "Mom's busy." I finally got in. New young hygienist gave me a lecture on my missed check-ups before asking about health and medication changes and updates. Looking back, I should have said something the moment she started to lecture about missed appointments. When she realized I had been in cancer treatment during that time, she was very embarrassed and upset. (But, I bet she never lectures another patient about missed check-ups like that again.) When my dentist came in, she had already seen the updated medical record and greeted me with a hug. She emphasized it is very important from now on that she be kept up to date on meds and treatments as some can make a difference in dental treatments I can have. You can't get a root canal on xgeva. (Part of a combo for bone mets.) I actually consider it a blessing to have the dentist I have. With each treatment change, she researches the effects on dental health and if there are treatment limitations.


Saturday 24th of January 2015

Elizabeth, It sounds like you have a wonderful dentist. As I mentioned somewhere, I was told to get needed dental work done before starting chemo. It's too bad that hygienist lectured you. I'm sure it turned to be a real learning experience for her. I guess that you as an educator, can look at it that way. Thank you for reading and sharing. Thanks for the good wishes too. Good luck at your appointment too.

Cancer Curmudgeon

Saturday 24th of January 2015

Argh almost didn't read this post because I am terrified of the dentist, even now, after all the horrible and painful cancer treatment. Crazy me, I just don't like people coming at my face with pointy objects. I am always extremely forthcoming with my cancer details with any health encounter--even the optometrist, I handed them a list of all meds on my first post-treatment visit, and they were most grateful. Your conversation with the hygienist, oh-so-familiar, is disturbing, but not surprising. More than once I've run into health care professionals that buy into the mythology of breast cancer, whether it be the "caught it early" trap your story here illustrates, or those highly intelligent nurses who insist a positive attitude is the real medicine, despite no evidence of such a thing. BTW I always find it odd when a nurse spouts the positive attitude a best medicine approach--if that were true the nurse would have to find a different job. I always wanna scream--embrace science and medicine--the backbone of your paycheck! Anyway, this is an interesting dilemma you pose here. I tend to get too quickly frustrated by the kind of ignorance or mis-education you describe here, and refrain from engaging, rather than taking an opportunity to inform and enlighten. I did it just the other day. I suspect this will be an ongoing thing for me.


Saturday 24th of January 2015

CC, I'm glad you decided to read my post. I don't like people coming at my face with pointy objects either! Who does I guess. I am forthcoming with my cancer details, too, when it comes to health care encounters of any kind. I hadn't thought about the optometrist, and I should, as I have an appointment coming up soon. I'm with you regarding anyone, not just nurses, spouting the positive attitude thing as real medicine. This does not mean I'm negative. Well, you and I are on the same page there... Thank you for reading and sharing. I hope you do take opportunities to engage whenever you feel up to it, as there still is way too much misinformation out there. Thanks again.

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