A Dentist’s Personal Tale
Lawrence A. Hamburg, DDS
Tonight is the second day after my third chemotherapy session. I’m nauseous, somewhat light-headed and headachy, and haven’t really eaten in the last few days. I have 6 more weeks of chemo and radiation ahead of me, and then aggressive surgery. I just watched a movie about football and God, and His power, and I’m trying to figure out why I have been given the gift of cancer—and I believe it is so I can change the world.
Briefly, my story is not unique. About 6 months ago, I went to button my top button on my dress shirt before putting on my tie, and I realized my collar was too tight to button. I assumed I was getting fatter, or older, or possibly both, but upon further examination, I noticed a swollen gland just to the right of my Adam’s apple. My diagnosis was unilateral lymphadenopathy, and I figured I was fighting some sort of infection and forgot about it. Despite playing tennis every Tuesday with a physician friend, and having many patients (and staff members) who could have checked my neck for me, I ignored it. You see, I have missed 1 day of work in 24 years of dentistry, and, like my dentist-father before me, thought: There can’t be anything really wrong with me. Besides which, we always see things on our body, or beneath the surface, or feel things, that we are afraid might be cancer these days, and we can’t go running to our doctors every time we suspect something might be wrong. I finally asked my hygienist what she thought during my prophy, and she suggested I get it checked right away (thank God). I still didn’t run to the doctor, but when I took my 9-year-old son in for a routine exam, I asked my doctor/patient/friend to check the lump on my neck. She immediately recommended a CAT scan, during which a radiologist friend discovered two masses, and stated I had some type of lymphoma. I was told I had a base-of-the-tongue tumor about the size of a super ball, and a secondary tumor in my lymph node about the size of a baseball (and he said: “At least it’s not squamous cell,” and I agreed—the news could be worse). He said I’ll have the worst year of my life, but I’ll be playing on the beach with my kids next summer. I hope he’s right!
The next day the node was biopsied, and the following day I found myself at the oncologist. It was stage IV metastatic squamous cell carcinoma—the very cancer we were taught was the one oral cancer to be the most afraid of! Needless to say, I fell on the floor crying and swearing to my wife I was ready to die if that was God’s plan (I feel like I packed 100 years into my 51) but not to leave my two boys (my other son is only 10). I have been accused of being obsessed with them since their birth. I was also not ready to leave my young, beautiful wife and my friends and family. Of course, I was devastated.
But today, almost 2 months later, I have chosen to see this challenge as a gift. I will beat this thing, and during the fight, and after, I will change the world. I will dedicate myself to reaching out to all of you, my fellow dentists. I implore you to take better care of yourselves—you owe it to your patients, your loved ones, and yourself. And, more importantly, your first responsibility as a healthcare provider is to check for life-threatening disease. Why would you worry more about finding a cavity than cancer? We have many different ways of finding not just cancerous lesions, but precancerous lesions. How can we justify motivating a patient to have a crown done, but not referring them for a “suspicious area” or maybe not even looking for it? My hope is that I can motivate just one more dentist, or one more hygienist, to look more closely than you did yesterday when you do your oral cancer screenings (the literature suggests that only 20% to 50% of us perform screenings in the first place). Is it because insurance doesn’t pay a specific fee for the most important thing you can do in the course of your day? Don’t you know early diagnosis can save a life, which is quite a bit more important than a tooth? Every day the literature is pointing more and more toward how important dentists are to finding disease in the oral cavity before anyone else can. I have focused my career on cosmetic dentistry so I can change people’s lives—isn’t it more important to save a life?
I hope to write many articles in the future, and give many seminars on the things I know a little about, which is primarily porcelain veneers, but now I consider myself a first-hand expert on oral cancer... so please, do your oral cancer screenings. Get the necessary armamentarium to find those lesions earlier, and take better care of yourself. You don’t know how important, and how loved, you are until you get this kind of wake-up call. You, and I, have the power to change the world—one patient at a time! But I can’t do it alone. Please help me make sense out of this, and do one more exam for a friend you haven’t met yet, and for your patients, and for yourself...PLEASE!
Lawrence A. Hamburg, DDS
Hudson Valley Dental Arts P.C.
Poughkeepsie, New York