“We didn’t have indoor plumbing,” Claudia told me. She was inches from my face, holding a weird-looking camera to my gums as I pulled my cheeks into slightly painful, awkward positions with an equally awkward fork-like tool. “Got it,” Claudia said, clicking the camera. “Now we’ll get the other side.”
I was at the periodontist, a gum doctor, relaxing in the most comfortable chair I had ever experienced. I sat there wondering why the people who create dental chairs can’t be in charge of airplane chairs, too. My feet were propped up, and my head was positioned so I could see clouds floating in a picture-blue sky. It was almost enough to make me forget why I was there.
Claudia took photos of my deteriorating gums, a condition that is problematic without serious intervention. And yes, this ordeal will be costly. While she clicked, she told me stories about her life.
“I’m the youngest of five kids,” she said, “and my mom was single.” During summers, Claudia and her siblings stayed with their grandparents in rural Mexico, where indoor plumbing was not available. “Sometimes we even had to use leaves as toilet paper.”
I looked at this elegant woman, her complexion, which was inches from mine as she did her work, absolutely flawless. She spoke perfect English without the trace of an accent, and manipulated complicated equipment while carrying on a fascinating conversion.
Before chemo, my gums were fine. Or at least, they were good enough. But now, next to one tooth, my gums have receded so much that I have to do something, or I’ll be in for even more pain and more money later. As much as I dreaded being in that office, Claudia was making it easier.
When things go wrong with my well-being, I like to blame chemo. I get tired a lot. I can’t remember words. My wedding ring no longer fits on my finger. But my gum problems could have been caused by another reason.
A few years ago, my family and I moved to Costa Rica. The day before we left, I took a bite of pizza and my tooth crumbled. Later that day, we took our daughter Lauren to Urgent Care where she was diagnosed with strep throat. Then the stranger who would be renting our house while we were gone showed up early, asking if he could spend the night since the only hotel in town was closed.
We readied the guest room wondering if our move was going bust before we had even boarded the plane.
But our new tenant turned out to be a nice guy. Lauren’s strep throat got better. And I found a dentist in Costa Rica who built me a crown at a fraction of the price we’d pay in the United States. Our time in Latin America is among our most treasured family memories, and we didn’t want to leave.
Ultimately, though, we did return to California, and shortly afterward, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. During my year of active treatment, dental hygiene and pretty much everything else took a back seat. Now that chemo, surgery, and radiation are behind me, I’m catching up with health issues I put on hold. And seeing a periodontist was at the top of my list.
“Your crown doesn’t fit very well,” Dr. Love told me, “and it needs to be replaced.” So as part of that long, expensive process, I listened to Claudia’s story.
I visualized her as young girl in the Mexican countryside with no access to plumbing. And I compared that image to the intelligent, accomplished young woman in front of me. That contrast made me feel like I was in good hands. To get from where she started to where she is now, she must have been born with enormous talent and worked very hard to capitalize on it. I like it when smart, hard-working people are in charge of my care.
I also like to listen to people’s stories, to gather from them little nuggets of wisdom. From my brief interaction with Claudia, I learned again a lesson I already knew: that all of us can overcome insurmountable obstacles, and lead lives that make the world better. From the ashes of hardship, beauty can rise like a phoenix.
In my walk with cancer, I’ve encountered many people whose stories have inspired me. When I feel stretched as thin as I can go, I remember these people, people who beat the odds.
I have nearly three more years before I’m medically cleared from my high-risk status as a cancer patient. But during that time and after, I vow to be more like Claudia, and others, who demonstrate that struggle and adversity are tools that make us strong.
Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.