Cancer Treatment and Oral Health

Being diagnosed with any cancer is understandably confusing, hectic, and worrying. With so many new medical terms, providers, and treatments to consider, your mouth and teeth may not be a priority.

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More than one third of people treated for cancer develop oral issues.  So it is very important to discuss your diagnosis with your dentist no matter where it is. 

Even if the cancer isn’t near your mouth, there may be complications that involve your mouth and teeth. Those that have cancer in the head and neck region, require bone marrow transplants, or need certain chemotherapy drugs are many times significantly more affected.   

Before Cancer Treatment

Depending upon the location of the cancer and the various treatment options, your dentist and cancer doctor can help determine if there is dental work that should be completed prior to starting your cancer treatment.   Some more urgent dental issues such as infections, broken teeth, or deep cavities are best treated within a certain time frame before your cancer treatment starts and/or during certain cycles of the cancer treatment.  Your body is then more able to heal.  Certain chemotherapy agents and the lengths of treatment time can affect the long-term ability of bone to heal.  In these cases, if any teeth need to be extracted, this should be considered prior to starting those medications. 

Oral Health Side Effects

Multiple issues may arise from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  These side effects may be temporary or enduring and can lead to further problems in the mouth and for your future health.  They include the following: 

  • Soreness and ulcers in the mouth 
  • Gum infections 
  • Bleeding gums 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Altered taste 

It’s obvious if your mouth is sore, bleeding, and foods don’t taste right, you’ll be less likely to eat and drink properly.  Your general health can decline further, potentially affecting your cancer treatment.  What may not be so obvious is the effect dry mouth, otherwise known as xerostomia, can have on you, your mouth and teeth.   When there is less saliva and it is thicker, it is less able to neutralise the acids created by plaque, increasing your chance of tooth decay. You may be more vulnerable to mouth sores and infections, such as oral thrush.  Denture wearers may have more difficulty or discomfort with their dentures. 

Addressing Side Effects

Your dentist, however, may be able to help relieve these symptoms through recommendations of various dental products. Options include saliva substitutes, mouth rinses to fight infections, and products that cause salivary glands to create more saliva. Treatments to decrease the risk of tooth decay, including specific fluoride and mineralizing products, are a dentist’s strength. The dentist can also suggest a moisturizer or adhesive to help comfort you and keep your denture in place. 

After Cancer Treatment

Oral side effects usually resolve after the cancer treatment is complete. However, people that had radiation treatment for head and neck cancers are more likely to have long-term issues.  Dry mouth is much more likely to remain if the treatment was directed at the salivary glands.  In these cases, a visit to the dentist should be sought very regularly, possibly as frequently as every 3 months. 

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