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How One Woman’s New Smile Helps Her Stay Strong During Cancer Treatment

Chemo treatments for breast cancer during a pandemic was never part of Shauna Rodriguez-Graber’s plan.

Yet there she was in May, at 40, facing a petrifying diagnosis weeks after stay-at-home orders rolled out across the U.S.

“I feel like I’m very in tune with my body,” says the pediatric nurse and mother of two from Washington State. But when her youngest one day said, “Mommy, there’s a ball,” after finding a lump under her skin, Shauna was stunned. “It wasn’t there last week.”

She attributes a few things to getting her through the treatments and the stress: Her family, her medical team, the cancer survivor she cares for as an in-home nurse—and her new smile, thanks to SmileDirectClub.

“Knowing that my appearance was going to change, that’s why I held on to this,” she says. “I need it because I need something to have control of. I know I’m going to lose my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes,” she says.

At least she could have her smile.

The Power of a Smile

“It sounds so vain, but it was really so helpful,” Shauna says of her new smile’s impact on her cancer journey so far.

She may have been on to something.

Multiple academic studies show that cancer patients’ physical changes during treatment can negatively impact their mental health. Depression can emerge, which in turn can impact recovery.

Shauna had felt self-conscious about her smile for years. But then SmileDirectClub appeared on her Facebook feed. She was amazed by the transformations and could see how confident customers appeared with their new smiles.

After 10 years as a stay-at-home mom to two kids, now nine and four, Shauna returned to work in December 2019. A short time later, she decided that the time was right to take the first steps toward her SmileDirectClub treatment.

When Everything Changed

Then in late March, the country shut down. In late April, her daughter discovered the “ball.” On a Sunday night, she called her doctor. By that Friday, she had had a mammogram and was scheduled for a biopsy.

In less than a month, she had a 12-week chemo schedule. She was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive type that can be hard to treat and is more likely to be found in younger women, under age 55, than other types of breast cancer, according to Breastcancer.org.

Her prognosis may be better than others with this type of cancer because it was found so early. Thanks to regular self-checkups, she knew the lump her daughter found was new. Because of the pandemic, few patients were coming in for checkups or mammograms, so she was able to book tests and start treatment immediately, she says.

Around that time, her aligners arrived in the mail.

She began to second-guess her decision to prioritize straightening her teeth during such a stressful time—she wondered if she could keep her job or if the medical bills would pile up. But her husband encouraged her to stick with it, and she agreed.

Treatment Begins

In her job as an in-home nurse, Shauna cares for a paraplegic boy who survived a brain tumor at age three. He is wheelchair-bound and needs help breathing and eating. He attended school in the same building as her own son—their classrooms were next door before the pandemic shut down.

“I want to be that type of cancer survivor,” she says of his resilience. And so she keeps working, at least 60 hours a week.

But the chemo has taken a physical toll. The weekly treatments shifted to once every three weeks in September. The chemicals build up in the body, so by fall, the treatments made her nauseous. She had to remove her aligners with four weeks left in her SmileDirectClub treatment plan because she was throwing up so often.

In November comes an MRI and checkups to see if the treatments worked, or if the cancer spread. She’ll face a decision on whether to have a double mastectomy.

But since chemo ends in a few weeks, she’s already had a treatment update with SmileDirectClub and has new aligners on order.

“I never thought teeth were that big of a deal, but they are that big of a deal when you don’t have hair,” she says.

“I’m still in the process of my smile and chemotherapy. Ironically, they will end around the same time. Breast cancer has impacted my life and my confidence, but it can’t take away my smile.”

Shauna Rodriguez-Graber shares her story with the hope that other women are inspired to get regular checkups. The American Cancer Society recommends that all women age 45-54 get a mammogram annually to screen for breast cancer. (Women age 55 and older may switch to every other year, or continue annual screenings).

Talk to your doctor if you think you may be in a high-risk category, such as a direct family history of breast cancer. ACS also offers preventative suggestions.

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