When 28-year-old Nicole Kowalski walked into her dentist’s office complaining of a toothache, they scoffed and sent her on her way. But when the toothache did not go away, the California woman spiraled into a deeper, deeper hole of problems. Soon, she was diagnosed with cancer that left her partially toothless and stuck with permanent lockjaw. If that first dentist had taken her toothache more seriously and called for additional checkups, she might have been able to keep her teeth and her life as it was.

Kowalski told the Los Angeles dentist that the toothache had been bothering her for months. But the man dismissed it as if she were hysterical. A bit after that, Kowalski sought another opinion only to learn that there was a tumor in her mouth, which was later diagnosed as salivary gland cancer in 2018.

“‘It started with a toothache. The dentist told me it was nothing to worry about, but over the next six months, the pain increased and spread to my jaw and face. It was so intense that I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, after a few trips to the doctors, an x-ray at the dentists revealed some bone loss.”

An X-ray revealed that she had a tumor in her jaw. Doctors thought it was benign, but further investigation revealed that it was not benign at all but cancerous and needed to be removed as soon as possible.

“A biopsy revealed that I had a benign tumor. This was in my upper right jaw, and I underwent surgery to remove it.”

Not only was Nicole left with permanent lockjaw – known as trismus – after the treatment, she can now only move her jaw a few millimeters at most. It is a strong limitation.

“Trismus is a condition that affects someone’s ability to open their mouth,” Nicole said. “I can only open my mouth nine-millimeters wide. It makes eating and speaking difficult, and I have to stretch my jaw every day. I use tongue depressors to leverage my jaw open four or five times a day. I attend speech therapy twice a week, too, and have an entire kit to keep my mouth clean and tidy.”

After so many problems, Kowalski has finally been cleared by insurance to get an obturator –  a type of prosthetic retainer – to replace her missing teeth. It is a dream come true for the young woman.

“It wasn’t until I went back for my follow up appointment that I found out I was misdiagnosed and had salivary gland cancer. Cancer runs in my family, so you kind of realize that the chance you might get it is always there, but I wasn’t prepared to hear those words,” Nicole said. “I thought about my age and all the things I wanted to do. I felt an immense sense of loneliness.”

The situation has been very difficult for Kowalski. But she is hopeful for the new device that can help her live a more normal life.

“As of right now, my scans are clear, and the pain is much duller and no longer so intense. I should get my new obturator this month.”

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