BRADENTON -- The cancer diagnosis Heather Ancona received on Feb. 23, 2011, was like a body slam.
The Parrish resident had just turned 40 and was told the lump she had found in her left breast was cancerous.
"Your all-consuming focus becomes how to keep living, especially when you have a child, as I do, and want to see her graduate, get married and everything," Ancona said. Her daughter, Halley, is a 17-year-old honor roll student at Palmetto High School.
Now, nearly four years later, Ancona is cancer-free and on maintenance drugs.
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But in the wake of her fierce cancer battle, she has discovered that her lack of regular dental visits, which she had pushed to the far rear of her priority list in her fight for life, has caught up with her.
Ancona recently received an estimate from one dentist for $11,740. She has nine chipped teeth and six that need crowns. She also needs a mouth guard because she is grinding her teeth at night. The estimate also includes a periodontal cleaning.
The story of a cancer patient who abandoned dental care is a familiar one to Dr. Nish Patel of Manatee Advanced Dentistry, who, in his three-year practice, has had a special concern for cancer patients.
In fact, Ancona discovered him through an advertisement and he is working slowly to get her teeth back in order.
"He is willing to work with me," Ancona said.
If he could have known Ancona in 2011, Ancona says now he would have told her that cancer patients should consider their dentist part of their cancer-fighting team.
"They need to continue to see the dentist to avoid having future problems," Patel said.
Most of Ancona's dental problems are from four years of not seeing a dentist because her budget was spent on fighting her cancer directly. But some of her problems are due to cancer drugs and surgeries where teeth can be chipped during anesthesia.
"Chemotherapy stops any growth from any cells and makes the teeth completely dry," Patel said. "Also, it is important for the dentist to fix small cavities."
Small cavities can grow larger and infection can set in, Patel said.
"The mouth is one of the most vulnerable areas for infection," Patel said. "A small infection can grow into a huge problem when cancer treatment begins."
Patel said that dentists are usually willing to help out financially.
"I feel any dentist will work with a cancer patient," Patel said. "We dentists want to be part of the team of health professionals who take care of the patient."
Dental work is the last thing Ancona was thinking about in 2011.
"I wish that someone would have discussed more with me about all the side affects of medication and not maintaining teeth," Ancona said. "You get to a point where there is no turning back. You can't do a quick fix when fillings have turned into crowns. If I had taken care of my teeth at the time, the issues would have been quick fixes."
Ancona suggests that caregivers advise their loved ones with cancer not to forget their teeth.
"I prolonged the dental work because I put everything we had going to save my life," Ancona said. "At the time, when fighting for my life I decided my teeth were not a necessity for life, not as important as for me to beat the cancer. Now I wish I would have taken more steps to correct my dental problems."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.