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The Day My Dentist Saved My Life

April 2019
March/April 2019
Amber Young

Have you ever felt so alone that it feels like nobody else in the world is going through what you’re going through? How would you feel if the doctors used those words to explain your cancer diagnosis to you? That’s exactly how I started my battle against oral cancer. Alone. The only person in the world with this type of cancer.

Let me set the stage for you. In early 2015, I was a happy, healthy 35 year old wife and mother. My family needed to find new medical and dental practices because we had just relocated. Low and behold, a $99 new patient coupon for a new dental practice in town showed up in my mail and I booked my entire family for appointments. That appointment was the day my dentist saved my life.

That’s not something you hear very often. My dental team offered a panoramic radiograph and an oral cancer screening, both of which revealed a suspicious lesion. The office staff took time to capture additional radiographs, and to assist in booking me an appointment with an oral surgeon for better imaging. That “spot” ended up being a tumor the size of a golf ball growing inside my right mandible, slowly breaking my jaw, while pushing the nerve out of the way.

This absolutely blew my mind. I was a healthy 35 year old, nonsmoker, with no pain, no symptoms or signs that anything was wrong, let alone a giant tumor breaking my jaw. I had a surface biopsy and was told that the tumor was benign, but I needed to remove the whole tumor for further testing.

When I walked into the treatment room at my consultation appointment, after the surgery to remove the tumor, I was greeted by six doctors and several interns who lined the hall. As I looked at my family sitting on the window sill in front of me, I knew the conversation was going to be different from what I expected. The doctor began by giving me all the details of my diagnosis: clear cell odontogenic carcinoma.

There have been less than 80 cases in the entire world. Chemo and radiation are not effective on this cancer. There are no survivors who have lived past five years. It’s very aggressive and they do not know how to treat it. The doctors needed to research and plan the proper treatment path and would get back to me “soon.”

I walked out of that meeting and instantly hit Google; surely there was more information. I knew I could go to the Internet and find all the information I needed to “WebMD” a new diagnosis. But, there was nothing. All of the cases were in third world countries during the early 1980s. There was no support group, no known treatment plan, and no history of success when treating this cancer. It always returned, metastasized, and took the patient’s life. I never Googled it again.

I was the only living person with this type of cancer! How can that be? To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I can honestly say I was on autopilot as I handled all the things I needed to handle. Mainly, holding it together for my children and husband, my daughter was 8 and my son was 1. I couldn’t break down. I refused to break down.

I had one option. The doctors had just told me I had an incurable cancer that no one has survived past five years. My main priority in life became how to teach my children how to handle life’s obstacles with dignity and grace… and the onlyway I could do that was to lead by example. For instance, I saved all my tears for the shower, so my family would never see or hear me cry. I knew my strength would set the course for my journey, not only for me, but for them as well.

Finally, after the longest month of my life, I got the call I had been expecting from the hospital. “We need to remove your entire right mandible” they said. The surgical plan was so extensive. I was going in for a 20 hour surgery, having my right mandible (jaw) removed from my ear to my front chin. They would remove bone and tissue from a donor site to replace what they removed from my face. So, I needed to choose between fibula (leg) and scapula (shoulder). My son had just turned one and was learning to walk and we live in a two-story home, so I selected my left scapula. If I was going to lose my ability to speak, eat, talk, etc. I wanted to at least be able to walk.

Once I received my treatment plan (well over $600,000), I panicked. I didn’t know what to do, how were we going to fund all of this? I created a Gofundme page in hopes of raising funds. The most amazing thing happened to me. Within 24 hours of my story being shared on social media, I had an inbox message asking if someone could share my personal contact info with a friend, who could help me. I was desperate and agreed.

That night, I was on the phone with Linda Miles, co-founder the Oral Cancer Cause, Inc (OCC). In this one conversation, not only did she help me find hope, she also connected me to the only other person alive with this type of cancer. The OCC helped him the year before. So now, I had a support team and another survivor of this type of cancer.

Then out of the blue, two weeks later, a wonderful card showed up with a check inside and a note saying to “Please put your son in daycare while you are going through recovery.” I was floored. Not only did they give me hope, they sent me a check to assist me in a time of despair.

The following month passed in a blur. I planned, I prepared, I organized, and I did everything I could to ensure my family would be cared for during my lengthy hospital stay. I distinctly remember having doubts and second guessing the doctors’ plans. I didn’t know if I wanted to listen to the doctors, or seek another opinion.

In my weakest moment, I considered my options. I was on the phone with my very blunt friend, expressing my frustrations. She listened quietly, let me cry, vent, complain, and finally she said to me, “I love you lady, and will always respect your choices, but I need to ask you something.” I agreed and what she asked me changed everything. “Tell me how you would like your funeral to be. What are your wishes?” And I froze… just for a moment we sat silently. Then, I said “Okay, I get it. Let’s do this.” She and I both knew there was only one other option, and no one was ready for that.

So at 35, I met with a notary in a parking lot and signed my last will and testament. I put my trust in my doctor’s plan and ability and never looked back. I had a 20 hour surgery, extensive reconstructive surgery, 51 staples in my shoulder, and a three year, $90,000 dental repair plan to look forward to.

Cancer changes your life forever, but very few people will tell you that cancer changed their life for the better. I am living my “new normal” and now work for the Oral Cancer Cause, Inc., a 501c3 non-profit organization that offers financial assistance to Oral Cancer Survivors across the country. OCC works diligently to increase patient awareness and early detection of this horrid disease. Our main campaign is the Bubble Gum Challenge, which shows support for oral cancer survivors by “Blowing Bubbles for Those Who Can’t” because most oral cancer survivors will lose pieces of their tongue, palate, or teeth and can no longer do something as simple as chew a piece of gum, let alone blow a bubble.

I would not be here today to write this article, or be a crusader against oral cancer, had it not been for the thorough and wonderful dental team and dentist who took the time to offer an oral cancer screening, educate me on what was in my best interest (and why), and followed up with me.

To be honest, I didn’t keep the first referral appointment they made for me, my insurance was not accepted at the office. The office manager took the time to call and follow up with me and make sure I understood the importance of having that appointment. If my cancer had not been located when it was, I would not have survived another four months.

Always remember: be diligent, be passionate, be informative, and be proactive, because you may just save a life today.





Fixed Partial Denture Repair

A single cast metal crown restoration that is retained, supported and stablized by an abutment on an implant; may be screw retained or cemented.

NOTE: May be orthodontic related