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The Dreaded Dentist

by Jennifer AnandSurvivor, Hodgkin’s LymphomaDecember 8, 2020View more posts from Jennifer Anand

My dad has amazing teeth. At 50, I think he maybe has had 1 cavity ever, if at all. My mother has had so much work on her mouth, it’s a wonder it’s all still together. I inherited my dad’s teeth (praise be). But during relapse, they found a super weird rare (like only 17 people ever diagnosed worldwide) bacteria in my spleen and put me on a cocktail tumbler full of drugs. Which turned my teeth and nails a greyish-black. Time has slowly been kinder and allowed both to return to a somewhat more human like pale hue.

But those drugs also destroyed something in my teeth. Suddenly, I had piles of cavities, tooth aches, and all sorts of problems. The twice annual cleaning definitely isn’t enough for me. October, I got a wisdom tooth infected and couldn’t eat on the right side of my mouth. Cue wisdom teeth removal the week before Thanksgiving. Followed by a major tooth infection and no eating on the left side of my mouth. Cue emergency root canal yesterday after work. On the bright side, I think I’m going to meet my dental deductible this year.

But I hate dental work. The very thought of a dentist or there many related mouthy cousins (periodontist, endodontist, oral surgeons) terrify me. My jaw hurts from keeping my mouth open. The Novocain shots are insanely painful. Getting home and having the numbness wear off is another set of pain. I’ve been through the pain of cancer and BMT. But nothing is quite like mouth/tooth pain. It radiates through your jaw, into your skull, your brain, your eyes. At the zenith of my infected tooth, I couldn’t see straight or think clearly. My hands shook just opening a bottle of Tylenol, and I was scared to drive.

I know many of you share my dental hesitations, and here are a few things that have helped me recently.

  1. The right person. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. I went to 3 different oral surgeon consults (over the last 3 years) before I settled on my final one. Radiation/diabetes/lung issues introduced multiple complications to wisdom tooth extraction, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the surgeons I consulted. They dismissed my fear, didn’t listen to me, and treated me as overreacting. My oral surgeon listened to me and put me at ease.
  2. During the procedure (I was only under local anesthesia), he went through hand motions for me to let him know if I needed another shot of Novocain, if I was doing ok, or needed a break. He kept his voice calm and light, which helped put me at ease. My endodontist kept making jokes and singing along to Christmas music, which made me way less terrified for the scary root canal.
  3. Listen to music. I don’t normally listen to a lot of music, but I always do for dental procedures. I like picking a heavy rock/metal (not my usual vibe) that’s very loud and pounding. Focusing on the music helps me tap my fingers to the rhythm and block out the noise of the dental work.
  4. Take all the meds! I try to take some pain medication before I go, to lessen the impact. If you take anxiety or sedation drugs, take them before you get to the dentist, to help make you as calm as possible. And of course, take the meds as soon as possible after you get home!
    1. Pro-tip: I tried taking meds with a cup of milk like I normally do, but that doesn’t work when your mouth is numb and droopy! I put the pill in a spoon of applesauce or pudding, and can swallow it better that way.
  5. Sleep: I always come straight home and take a long nap. I think it helps my body recover better from the trauma (mental and physical) of the dental work, and better support my recovery.
  6. Have your favorite [soft] foods: ice cream, soups, puddings…have your fridge stocked with special treats, so that you can make a good association with dental work. My roommate brought me a delicious coconut pudding which will forever be my root canal treat food!

Dental work sucks, but is an unfortunate necessity thanks to cancer. What are your best tips for dealing with dental work?


All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer.  If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you!  Please submit your idea at

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