My mother is the only poor dentist I've ever met. For 50 years she practiced in New York City, a town where the dentist's favorite form of transportation is the Mercedes-Benz, but mother wasn't that kind of dentist. She ran a no-high-overhead operation without a receptionist or a secretary or the other flashy stuff dentists use to run up the bills and push down the quality of their work.

Now she herself is a patient havaing to deal with chronic illness and death as it comes to us in America.

Mother would never let anybody else work on her patients' teeth. No hygienists tucked away in rows of cubicles cleaning teeth under the cursory supervision fo a D.D.S.

That is why, instead of "seeing" four or five patients an hour, she could only attend to seven or eight a day. First-class dentistry, she's always said, is slow and time-consuming, but mother is one of those old-fashioned people who put a premium on care and craftsmanship that only the rich can afford to pay for. Mother, however, had a penchant for poor patients: elevator operators, domestic servants, day laborers.

She knew that in a society that confuses the free market with freedom, where profit maximization is preached from pulpit and editorial page, she who casts bread upon the waters is likely to get scum in return. Nevertheless, she persevered in providing handcrafted, meticulous dental medicine to those whose incomes merited only a cruder product, with the result that when here legs gave out a few years ago, she retired with her Social Security and little else.

She moved to Washington and made her home with me and busied herself with various health education projects, a field that had always been of great interest to her. "It's better to wear out than rot out," she says, and although she has breat cancer, until quite recently she was wearing out in a long, dignified and wise old age. Mother will be 80 this autumn.

She's had the breast cancer 10 or 12 years. We're accustomed to thinking or cancer as a galoping disease. You have cancer, you have six months to live, and sometimes that's so, but not always.

Mother also decided, when she came down with it, not to go the route of Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller. She considered the cure claims for operations like mastectomies to be exaggerated. In fact, she was not convinced there is convincing evidence to show women who undergo the operation live longer, or, what is as important to mother, live as well as women who do not. At any rate, as a responsible person who believes men a women do have the right to control what is and what is not done to their bodies, mother decided to forgo operation, radiation and chemotherapy.

Instead she chose to try to live as healthy a life as possible. She was very careful about what she ate. Lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, fish, moderate amounts of lean meat not more than two or three times a week, no sugar, very little whit flour, low salt, brown rice and other grains that had not had their nutritive properties refined out of them. She also followed a program of exercise appropriate to a lady of her years which does not mean putting on the Adidas and running suit to go pounding through the parks for an hour every day. She walked and did yoga.

For treatment she relied on acupuncture and certain homeopathic remedies prescribed by a lay practitioner. (Homeopathy is a school of medicine that thrived here and in Europe during the late 19th century and early years of the 20th. Homeopathic physicians ar of M.D.s with special postgraduate training, but there are very few of them so that most people seeking homeopathic help have to rely on lay prescribers. As a school of medicine, homeopathy is quite different in the drugs it uses and the way it uses them, although homeopathic and nonhomeopathic doctors both use some of the same things, like antibiotics.)

Mother makes no claim to be cured. She obviously isn't cured, for the cancer has spread in the course of the years. But then, can the American Cancer Society claim their methods cured the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey who, from what I know about the two cases, didn't live as long or as comfortably with the disease as my mother has?

My mother has suffered no treatments that make your hair fall out. She is terribly thin, as is often the case with cancer, but her color is good and she is eating like a little pony. She has had no pain at the primary site of her cancer and, while she is a gravely ill person, her immediate cares stem less from her disease than from organized medicine, Medicare and our health-care delivery system.