by Melissa Tennen
When the receptionist at the oncology office asked Dorothea Collura when she wanted to schedule her follow-up appointment, Collura said, “We don’t need to schedule any more appointments because the cancer is gone.”
As it turned out, that statement wasn’t just wishful thinking. The cancer really was gone. What’s revealing is that that sentence shows the essence of Collura’s positive thinking—a thought process that permeates every facet of her life from her career as a dental assistant to her role as a martial arts and yoga instructor. Although the threat to her life was very real both times she had breast cancer, Collura said she was not going to be intimidated by the disease.
October marks National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which calls attention to breast cancer issues and the need to support ongoing research. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 in 8 (12%) women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetimes. This year, about 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. Aside from non-melanoma skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the US and is one of the leading causes of cancer death among women of all races and Hispanic origin populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The diagnosis in 2010 was shocking for Collura, who was 50 at the time. Always mindful of her health by eating right and exercising, she hadn’t expected a positive biopsy finding for mucinous carcinoma of the breast, a rare form of invasive ductal carcinoma. To treat the cancer the first time, she had a partial mastectomy. The disease had not spread to her lymph nodes. But she didn’t feel right. Blood work revealed nothing, but in the fall 2012, her vision in her right eye became blurry. Several specialists later, she learned she had breast cancer again. This time, the disease had made its way to her eye. Her doctors learned that she had lesions on her organs, all smaller than 5 cm. The cancer was in her lungs, stomach, lymph nodes, and liver.
Chemotherapy was successful, and Collura is in remission. “I’m definitely forever changed by this. It made me a more compassionate person and more patient. It brought my faith to a whole new level. My spiritual practice has really grown, too. It really does open a person’s heart. What has changed me the most is to find out how many people really love and care about me,” Collura says.
Collura, a certified and registered dental assistant, is the definition of tenacity. She has been with the same practice in Jamesburg, NJ since finishing school 33 years earlier. The secret to her loyalty is her feeling of empowerment from the deference her employer gives her. “The dentist I work for is a great boss who is very respectful of my knowledge,” she says.
After Collura graduated Middlesex County College in Edison, New Jersey, she worked at three dental offices simultaneously. “Balancing these jobs was not a problem because I was really interested in the work I was doing,” she says. Today she just works in one practice—the one in Jamesburg.
Her love for dental assisting began as a child. “I had a great dentist who was very animated and answered all my questions. But the thing that really kicked off my love for dental assisting was my orthodontist. He had a dental assistant, and they had a great rapport. I thought, ‘Wow, this is something you get paid to do and have fun.’ My visit to the orthodontist sealed the deal for me,” she says. Her aptitude for science made dental assisting an ideal fit.
“When I started in school to become a dental assistant, I felt like I was born to do this type of work, and it came like second nature. It was a really great blessing that I should have a job that is a passion more than a career,” She chose to become an expanded functions dental assistant.
“Whatever course I could take, I always would take— whatever interested me. I wanted to do expanded functions, because I wanted to do more in the mouth,” she says. “After starting a dental assisting career, I wanted to learn more about what goes on in the body. I just continued to do more and learn more, so I could share more with my patients. It’s been helpful to let patients know what I know. I went back to school for massage therapy and learned about nutrition so I had more nutritional background for my patients.”
She carries that passion out of the office with her to the gym. Shortly after becoming a dental assistant, she nurtured another great love. A practitioner of martial arts for the past 25 years, she now has a third-degree black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu and an understanding of the Japanese art of shiatsu message, also known as acupressure. These interests led her to yoga.
“Yoga just seemed natural because I was doing a lot of body movement and stretching. We were doing yoga poses in my martial arts class, so I thought, ‘Let me try.’ I got certified as a yoga instructor. This just teaches people more about the mind-body connection.”
Her intuitiveness about these connections helps her be a better advocate for patients, she says. “Helping patients through breathing techniques enables them to become relaxed,” she says. “I also taught a class at a dental conference on breathing techniques and relaxation that I learned through my yoga practices.”
Collura’s spiritualty and the teachings from her training helped her focus her energies on getting better. “I spend a lot of time in prayer. I continue to exercise. I don’t know if everyone can do that but I do recommend getting outside and walking,” she says.
But it was her work as a dental assistant that also helped her feel better. Collura performs additional duties, such as making temporary crowns and bridges—because she loves her work.
“I am doing something that I love to do, which helps with my attitude. It kept my mind occupied on the need of my patients. It’s also important to rest, and you need to have a balance,” she says.
Support from her coworkers and dentist was essential, she says. “I had chemo every 3 weeks, and every 3 weeks the office manager would have prepared a meal for me. My employer always gave me the time that I needed to go to appointments. Anytime there was downtime in the office, he encouraged me to just go rest in one of the dental chairs if I needed to,” she says.
“I didn’t tell a lot of my patients. Only if I had known them a long time,” she says. “When I’m at work, I am taking care of patients. They aren’t there for me; I’m there for them. It’s really important that they know that I am focused.”