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I have breast cancer

Sept. 1, 2010
Ohio hygienist describes the emotions of hope, joy, and sadness encountered during treatment.

Ohio hygienist describes the emotions of hope, joy, and sadness encountered during treatment.

by Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH

An emotional Sheri Kay is comforted by her husband during a hair-cutting ceremony.

Women live with a certain amount of tension in their lives, and the name of the tension is breast cancer. The lucky ones deal with the tension in an abstract, surely-it-won't-happen-to-me way. Others are forced to deal with it on a much more intimate level.

Sheri Kay, RDH, BS, of Amherst, Ohio, has found herself in the second, not-so-lucky group.

"Over the past three years," she says, "I've had seven biopsies for cysts, lumps, or bumps. They were always benign, but always suspicious. This year in January – it seems like a thousand years ago – I flunked my mammogram again. The followup sonogram took 45 minutes, and the radiologist said she was going to call the surgeon immediately. That's when I began to know something was different."

She had a biopsy Feb. 11, and on Feb. 12 made a final decision to go ahead with a scheduled mission trip to Guatemala with Latin American Medical Providers.

"The mission site is a three-hour drive from Guatemala City, and it's a weeklong commitment. When I got there, I bought a local cell phone so I could call the surgeon for the biopsy results. The connection was still so bad I had to go up on the roof of a building to call. The doctor wasn't available, but the nurse said she would have him call my husband, Scott, at home later that day.

"I called Scott at lunchtime, and he said he had already talked to the surgeon. Then there was silence. Finally, he said the biopsy was positive."

Earlier, Sheri had told the two dentists she was working with that she was waiting on a breast biopsy report. When she walked downstairs after talking to her husband, the two dentists were there, one wearing a breast cancer support T-shirt.

"I pointed to his shirt and said, 'My husband is going to need one of those.' He asked what I needed, and I said, 'I want to talk to a woman.'"

Sheri went to find the program director, Barb Spaniak, and told her she was having a meltdown.

"We have a lot of those around here," Barb said.

"This isn't even about work," Sheri said, "it's about me." The two women had a good cry, then Barb asked if Sheri wanted to go home immediately.

"I literally looked outside," Sheri recalled, "and I could see a line of hundreds of people. Some of them had slept in line two or three nights. They were waiting so long because they had so little access to quality medical and dental care. One woman there - and I'm not exaggerating - had come in with a tumor on her ovary that had been growing for seven years. I can't describe their state of health, and the level of patience they had as they waited. I knew that when I got home I'd be at the Cleveland Clinic within 24 hours. The disparity was amazing. How could I sit there and feel sorry for myself in the midst of where I was? How could I leave early?"

So she made a decision to stay for the full week. She told a few other women about her diagnosis, and one said, "We have something in common. I'm a breast cancer survivor."

"I had people to cry with and to get scared with. One of the surgeons at the clinic was willing to look at the pathology report that was faxed to me. I had a free consultation right there that eased my anxiety and curiosity."

She got home from Guatemala on Saturday, Feb. 20, and began appointments on Monday. She underwent a double mastectomy and reconstruction March 9.

A trucker staring down

And thereby hang two tales. Even during the trauma and apprehension surrounding cancer treatment, most people can report moments that lighten the mood. "One of my huge intentions is to find the fun and the laughter in the midst of such an unbearable situation, such a life-altering situation."

Just before the surgery, Sheri's entire family had been caught up in a silly discussion of whether she should have reconstructed nipples along with reconstructed breasts. "Finally my son Cory said I should just get the word 'nipple' tattooed front and center on each side."

Another light moment occurred as Sheri was driving home from a follow-up appointment with her plastic surgeon. The surgeon had been gradually filling her saline breast expanders, and had told her to massage the incision lines and expanders to stretch the skin and speed healing.

"I'd just left the office after getting another 75 ccs. I was at a stop light in my orange Mini Cooper convertible, doing my first little massage. All at once I looked up, and there was a trucker, staring down at me. I thought I was gonna die. I was never so happy to see a green light in my life."

As much as she would have liked them to be, surgery and reconstruction were not the end of the story. Sheri began chemotherapy in April, and at this writing had just had a head-shaving party with family and friends. She'd already bought a spiky, sassy red wig.

A supportive career

Through everything, she has continued to work full-time from home in her job with ACT Dental Practice Coaching ( "My boss, Kirk Behrendt, is the greatest guy. He lives by the philosophy that life comes first. My job involves a lot of travel, but he'll be doing some of the traveling for me until I'm fully back on my feet. I'm still able to do some coaching by phone and on Skype. I stay connected to my teams and my dentists."

Sheri Kay pauses while cycling with her husband in this 2006 photo.

Sheri was able to attend a spring meeting of ACT alumni, and called it her "coming-out party" after the mastectomies. "Everyone was so sweet and loving and supportive. Kirk had pins made that are the pink breast cancer support ribbon turned on its side to look like a K. My first name, Sheri, is above it."

One of the things that had Sheri anxious after the diagnosis was the fear of how her disease would impact the people around her. "Sometimes this feels like it's harder on my support people than it is on me. I'm so aware of how what each of us does every minute can influence someone or something. I live my life for positive impact. Now, knowing what I'm going through, the negative impact of it has been the hardest piece of it for me."

Sheri's coaching job with ACT is the culmination of a varied career in dental hygiene. After graduating from Lorain High School in 1979, she actually wanted to go to Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida. "But 3,000 people applied for 20 slots every year, and my mom decided I needed a Plan B.

"So I answered an ad that specified working with children. I didn't know until I got to the interview that the job was dental assisting. Within an hour, I was learning to hold the air/water syringe and the suction. What shaped the experience in a good way was my boss, Dr. Carl DiVita. He helped me learn that it's all about how people and kids are treated. It was a large group practice, and besides assisting I learned lab work, practice administration, and recall scheduling."

After that job, she went to Ohio University for a quarter, "drank a lot of beer, came home, worked in a bank, etc. I got married, had two kids, then realized I'd married the wrong guy."

Since she'd always been interested in dental hygiene, she decided that would be her ticket to self-sufficiency. She went to Cuyahoga Community College and put her nose to the grindstone. She was an honors student and president of the class of 1994. By the time she graduated at age 31, she was divorced and ready to support her children. She also met Scott around that time, and they married in 1995. Her first hygiene job was in a welfare practice.

"On the plus side, I learned what I didn't want in a career, and I got my speed up. Later, I found a job with Dr. Steve Ratcliff in Westlake, and I worked there eight years. Technically, my learning started all over again. Dr. Ratcliff had trained at the Pankey Institute, and I never realized such a high caliber and quality of dentistry could exist."

She and Dr. Ratcliff developed a unique position for her that they called the Circle of Care. It enabled her to be the go-to person, the familiar face, for new patients. "I took new patient phone calls, conducted a preclinical interview, guided them through the whole new-patient process, and completed their hygiene care. I coordinated their later visits, and sometimes assisted."

When Dr. Ratcliff left Ohio to work for the Pankey Institute in Florida, Sheri was devastated. "Our families had meshed. Jane, his wife, was one of my best friends. We'd always have Hanukah at my house, Christmas at theirs. When their daughter got married, I actually got an online nondenominational minister's license so I could perform the ceremony." When Sheri started chemotherapy in April, Jane flew in from Arizona, where the couple now lives, to be with her.

Sheri worked at one other office after leaving Dr. Ratcliff's practice, and completed a bachelor's degree in allied health at Youngstown State University. She also began teaching part-time in the dental hygiene program at Lorain County Community College.

Her introduction into consulting

One day in 2003, a dentist in Minnesota whom she'd met at a study club called to ask if she could consult for his practice. "My children were older and in transit by that time, so I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and went to Minnesota for three months."

She actually took a jurisprudence test and got a Minnesota hygiene license so she could do more hands-on coaching. When that job was finished, she took another in Chicago, flying home every weekend. Before she knew it, she was a dental consultant.

She recalls, "Being self-employed was sometimes good, sometimes bad. There was no job security, and my income plummeted, but I loved it. The level of learning and positive impact I could make were more important than a paycheck as long as I earned enough to live."

She started with ACT in 2007 after Behrendt found her through a national search. "For each office I train, Kirk goes ahead and evaluates; then I observe for a day and formally begin with a two-day intensive training. We have a skeletal outline with foundational skills and systems, but each team has unique needs, and the whole program is very much individualized. It keeps things exciting. I deliver a perio model to the hygienists." She also encourages them in cross-training with the front desk, the lab, and in expanded functions.

Sometimes, the excitement of her job can be more than expected. At one office, Sheri was the first person to arrive one morning, and she thought that something felt odd. She walked through the office and found a male assistant passed out in an operatory chair with a nitrous mask over his face. He'd been there all night. The dentist called 911 and they sent the guy off to rehab. "For another job in Georgia I met the team at a dinner the night before we started. The next morning, the hygienist resigned. It was never my intention, I told them, to do an exorcism, but it was too late.

"And after a consultation in Washington, D.C., the dentist helped me print a boarding pass, then dropped me off at the airport. I didn't recognize the place, and it turned out I was at the wrong airport. I needed to get to Kansas City in an hour, so I spent $500 on a one-way ticket to KC. Now I constantly doublecheck everything."

Sheri loves her job, and is looking forward to going back to work/travel full-time. "Nothing is more cool than seeing lightbulbs go off for team members and dentists. I help them depend on themselves, their talents, their skills. For me, from the beginning it has been about empowering others."

She already has a cancer treatment anecdote to share with her teams. "I had to go in to have a dehiscence repaired, and it was just a day from hell. When it was finished, the surgical tech pulled down his mask and thanked me for being such a good patient. He didn't even know me, but he made that day a good day. I tell dentists and teams, remember this. Help your patients see their treatment as a good experience."

Though she's been able to work from home, Sheri knows that she has to focus more on herself and her support team right now. "The paradox is that I'm home all the time, and I'm seeing local friends again. If there's a gift in this, it's that I've reconnected with so many people that I haven't talked to in years. I'm attracting people back into my life, and I'm also connecting with people I didn't even know before this."

Her family, of course, has stayed close through the entire process. Cory, 23, lives at home. He is a part-time student and works at a video resale store. Shaun, 26, and his new wife, Stephanie, live nearby, as do Sheri's parents.

The diagnosis has also enabled Sheri and Scott to enrich their marriage. "We were sitting here a couple of weeks ago, and I looked up at Scott. He's been taking care of everything; he's been solid. I said, 'We're doing really, really good.' And it's true. I know we are. As a couple we're doing better than we ever did. It made me cry, and I said, 'Isn't it sad that it took cancer?'"

She and Scott stay busy by fixing up their hundred-year-old farmhouse, and by riding a tandem bicycle together. "We've gone more than 30,000 miles together. We've bicycled in Washington State, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois. The roads are straight and flat here at home, so we ride on the roads with no trouble. We might go a hundred miles on a weekend, or 25 or 30 after supper."

After meeting and talking with Sheri and Scott at their home, and shooting e-mails back and forth during the writing of this article, I can say that the most important thing to them right now is to live their lives fully, embracing every ounce of joy and sorrow and hope and pain that comes their way. They focus on finding meaning in the breast cancer diagnosis, and accepting it without letting it overwhelm them. They look forward to putting the cancer diagnosis and its aftermath far, far behind them.

Excerpts from Sheri Kay's blog

Sheri maintains a Web site at, where she posts photographs and shares her thoughts and feelings about life and breast cancer. "My blog isn't daily, but it's pretty close. I started doing it because I have so many friends that it was stressful trying to keep everyone in the loop. What it turned out to be, though, is therapy. The blog forces me to put language into what's going on in my head and my spirit. I'm living it out loud now." For Sheri, the blog is also one more way to have a positive impact, by supporting others who may be going through the same process.

Here are a few excerpts from Sheri Kay's site:

April 16 – The past three days were all about my work and all about focusing my attention on helping other people learn and grow. Now that I landed back home my attention needed to shift ... I had to be at the hospital at 6:30 the next morning for a surgical procedure to have my port placed. I was getting scared. Please understand that my fear had nothing at all to do with the actual surgery, and everything to do with what it stood for. I was about to take that first giant step toward chemo.

Fifteen minutes after I walked in the door, Scott was busy working on a door frame because Scott is always busy doing something (I love him) and like an ocean wave it came rushing over me. My whole body started to shake and my tears began to flow. I asked Scott to please stop what he was doing for just a moment ...

It seemed like a really long time but it was probably only a minute or two that he did exactly what I needed him to do. Scottie held me and let me cry, and cry, and cry. I looked up and all I could say was, I don't want to do this! I don't want a port! I don't want chemo! I just want to work and travel and ride my bike! Scott didn't have to say a word. He kept me wrapped in his arms standing in the kitchen until I calmed myself down.

May 10 – If there is strength in numbers, then being surrounded by people I care about will be extra important on Wednesday. Seems the chemo has gotten the best of my hair, and it is indeed starting to come out. Although I know I could probably wait a little longer to see how it will play out by itself, my preference is to grab on to whatever part of this I can control and go ahead and do the buzz.

May 13 – It's easy to admit that vanity certainly does play a role in this scenario. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm not sure I know a woman out there who is confident that she will look her very best with no hair on her head. What is playing a bigger part in this one for me, though, is that this is one more thing, one more way that cancer is having a voice in what happens with and to my body. There are days when I feel completely physically mutilated, and I get sad about what this cancer has done and is still doing to me. Then I go back to my "touchstone," my gratitude, and count the hundreds of things that cancer cannot touch, that cancer cannot reach. I still have everything I need to be happy and to thrive each and every day of my life. I am still me.

Scott had the honors of taking the clippers to me, and let me tell you that for me this was the ultimate demonstration of trust. I have trusted this man with my life on the back of a tandem for thousands of miles. To ride the back of a bike is one of the most subservient positions to be in, having no control of virtually anything. Can't see, can't steer, can't break ... you get it. Now I was trusting him to take off my hair ... and to still love me when it was all said and done. He didn't seem nervous at all. He was joking and delaying and I finally said, "Just do it!"

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor based in Calcutta, Ohio. Besides working in a pediatric dental practice, Seckman is a prolific freelance writer, a book indexer, and a speaker on dental and writing/indexing topics. She can be reached at [email protected].

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