Sisterhood: When diagnosed with breast cancer, RDH finds sisters among patients

Oct. 9, 2012
Dental hygienist copes with diagnosis of breast cancer by turning to patients who have formerly undergone treatment for cancer and survived.

By Suzanne Hubbard, RDH

Blessed are women whose hearts
and souls are joined together by laughter
and tears for they shall be known as sisters

My cell phone was placed on vibrate mode in my dental lab coat pocket as I was eagerly waiting for a call. I never have my cell phone in my operatory, let alone in my pocket. But on this day, it was imperative! I had been waiting for two weeks for this important call. What is taking so long? I had been waiting for results for what seemed like an eternity. I was just certain I was going to be okay. Having been through this two times before over a ten-year period, everything always turned out fine.

However, when I answered my cell phone later that day, the surgeon’s voice was quiet, almost somber. “I am sorry the pathology report from your biopsy came back and shows that it is breast cancer.”

Luckily my dental chair was nearby. Quickly taking a seat, I found that I could not breathe. The void in my lungs nearly suffocated me. It flashed me back to when my children were babies and how when they would cry; it seemed like an eternity for them to take that next breath. Please ... breathe. I wouldn’t say it was a punch in the stomach, but more like a large vacuum had sucked my lungs into the canister. Have you ever had the life sucked out of you so hard that the very air you are hoping for ... just isn’t there?

I scrambled around my operatory. Tissues were gone. The only thing I could find quickly accessible was a 2x2 gauze to wipe away the torrential flood of tears. My heart was racing; hands shaking … the surgeon continued talking. I only caught bits and pieces in my fog and shock ... early stage ... due to its location ... mandatory mastectomy ... schedule it soon.

As I hung up the phone, I knew that I had three more patients to see in my schedule. I couldn’t cancel them. They were already in the waiting room ... Ugh! How was I going to power through? As hygienists, we find that somehow we do. That same fog and shock that initially hit me with the news that I had breast cancer, was a black cloud that followed me over a two-week period, whether at home, while driving my car, spending time with my family, but it hit me especially hard in my job setting. Every morning as I drove to work, the tears would just keep coming.

I struggled with my role as a dental hygienist. Here I was trying to provide care and to promote health and wellness. Trying to provide patient support was difficult — a crazy irony, an awkward dichotomy, which sometimes life brings to us. I was serving patients, and striving for health, implementing oral plans and goals while carrying around a dreadful diagnosis, one of uncertainty, mere stagnation, and a diagnosis straight from the pit of hell! My role had been reversed, I was the patient. This seemingly awkward scenario played out over the next few days. But a crazy thing started happening. As I grew more aware of my diagnosis and gathered more information, my dental hygiene career actually became an amazing catalyst for my healing.

Who knew that a patients’ medical history could bring such hope? Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, patients’ medical histories were a vehicle, a tool. It was there to provide factual information, a background, a longitudinal record of gathering data to make systemic connections, to address options for healthy living, and to plan for patient care. After being diagnosed, those medical histories became integrated with my own personal journey and gave me hope for healing. I can’t tell you the times I skimmed over the question, Have you ever had cancer, and If so, what kind of cancer? Don’t get me wrong, that information helped gather information, and gave the necessary tools to implement oral suggestions, and navigate overall health but I never correlated it personally. Those medical histories suddenly became my own mental filing, a record and picture book of those who had gone before me, those who have walked the long and arduous road of breast cancer. Those women, who surpassed the challenging stages of cancer through anger, grief, loss, pain, and sorrow, suddenly became my personal mentors and in a way my own superheroes! And those same women were blessed to have made a full recovery.

My patients — Nancy K., Alicia M., Dana S., Marcy B., and Chris A. — became my models of health, hope, and inspiration. This teetering between life and death, health and disease (I felt fine, thank you!) suddenly opened my eyes to another world — a kind of sisterhood. The more I shared with others this battle I was fighting, the more women came out of the woodwork. Someone knew someone who knew someone who had breast cancer. We shared a common, yet difficult bond. We were a band of sisters. I could almost picture us, these warriors covered in armor, and even though our battlefield is quite vast, it was overwhelmingly unified.

So as I am journeying along this road, I marvel at my sisters whose footprints are firmly etched along this battlefield, having walked the path I am now walking. Each marker is one where I look back and see the progress I am making. It is much like seeing our patients’ make strides toward health. We get that little tickle when they find success, and make the connection. And there is great comfort in camaraderie and working together. I am grateful I am not alone.

Just tell someone you have breast cancer and you have instantly made a sister. Of those sisters, I pay tribute to the patients’ who have inspired and encouraged me along the way. I have an army of personal cheerleaders! To the many dental hygienists’ who have fought and are currently fighting breast cancer, we are in this together. To my fellow dental hygienist and friend Tina Riss, you have been an incredible inspiration to me! Your own journey of breast cancer and recovery has inspired me to continue taking steps forward. This has been a journey, and in a way, a new beginning. Life suddenly takes on new heights. What I once saw as one dimensional, and linear, I now see life as having crossroads, avenues, and boulevards.

I am thankful I am on the other side of the diagnosis, reaching toward recovery. Glad that my cell phone is stowed in my locker — no more waiting.

Strangely, I received a call on my cell phone not too long ago, quite different from the one where I had received my initial diagnosis. I heard her say, “I know you don’t know me, but I am a cancer survivor and I have been thinking about you. Please know you don’t just have a friend, we are now considered sisters.” Funny how life can bring us full circle, one call brings death, another brings life.

Suzanne Hubbard, RDH, works in Greeley, Colo., at Greeley Dental Health Centers.