Breast cancer: a one of a kind experience

Oct. 6, 2011
According to JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, PhD, there are no rules when it comes to breast cancer. A four-year cancer survivor, she says people are unique in how they perceive their respective situation, how they respond to treatment, and how they recover. While accustomed to working with people undergoing cancer treatment during her dental hygiene career, Gurenlian talks about her experience as a breast cancer patient.
By JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD
The one thing I learned right away when I was diagnosed with breast cancer was that there are no rules. Each person is unique in how they perceive their situation, how they respond to treatment, and how they recover.I was diagnosed with breast cancer during September 2007, and thus, am a 4 year survivor. When I was first diagnosed, I felt little to no fear and full confidence that I would recover easily. I was told that I had stage 1 ductal carcinoma that could be treated with a lumpectomy and radiation. At the time, I was campaigning for state assembly. I had my surgery on a Monday, and Tuesday I was back walking a district and knocking on doors. I was pretty convinced that this diagnosis was just a blip on the screen, and I would sail through my treatment.When I saw my surgeon in follow-up, she informed me that the pathology showed I actually had stage 2 invasive carcinoma, which would require considerable intervention with both radiation and chemotherapy. My world changed on a dime. I was certain that I could have managed radiation treatment just fine, but was not so sure about the chemotherapy side of things. I proceeded to chemotherapy and discovered that my body simply did not like the onslaught of chemicals. Suffice it to say I was royally ill with each of the 17 treatments. I am convinced that I would not have made it through those treatments successfully without the aid of a very attentive oncology team, family and friends, including my circle of dental hygiene friends. Given this experience, I learned a few tips of the trade.• Take the drugs! I am not advocating illegal drug use, but when offered anti-emetics, antianxiety, or anti-whatever medication, take them. There is no need to be stalwart when you are overcome with side effects that make you ill.• Get your hair cut early. I chose to have my head shaved just after my first treatment rather than let my hair fall out on its own. I found that my scalp actually hurt when my hair started to fall out, and was relieved when it was shaved.• Don’t be surprised if you gain weight during treatment. We tend to think of cancer patients as wasting away and undernourished. However, if you are given steroids as part of your treatment, you may gain weight. And, steroid weight takes time to lose. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up if your body changes. You are alive. You will lose that weight eventually.• Give up control of your world. Cancer treatment time is not the time to worry about cooking, house cleaning, doing laundry, and the 30 other things you try to fit into your day. Your family and friends want to help you. Let them.• Brush, floss and rinse. Your oral hygiene regimen can make a difference in reducing the likelihood of mucositis and oral infections. These conditions can be life-threatening, so stay vigilant.• Stay positive. It is difficult when you are facing a life-threatening illness to be focused and positive, but it does help. If you can find humor in things and laugh every day, it gives you a little boost of energy to persevere.Throughout my career in dental hygiene, I have been working with individuals undergoing cancer treatment. My goal has been to be supportive, offer assistance, and to educate them about the oral health aspects of cancer care. It has been my own passion and personal mission. I thought I pretty much knew all there was to know about cancer care until I went through the experience myself. When I reflect upon my experience, I learned a great deal. I am relieved to be over the treatment phase and am ever so grateful to all those who helped me during this time of medical challenge.If you or someone you know has cancer, I am happy to offer assistance as needed. Also, recently, I was privileged to work with Young Dental to develop a brochure about oral health considerations during cancer treatment.
You can access a PDF version of this brochure at oral health. Pass it along!
JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD, is President, Gurenlian & Associates, and President-Elect, International Federation of Dental Hygienists.To read previous articles in RDH eVillage FOCUS from 2011 written by JoAnn Gurenlian, go to articles.