Cancer Treatment and Your Dental Team

Cancer Treatment and Your Dental Team

One of the scariest conversations you can have with a doctor is one that involves you or a loved one with the diagnosis of cancer.  If you’ve ever had cancer… let me say “I’m sorry”…. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are over 100 types of cancer and they are usually named by the location in the body (tissues that are affected) followed by the types of cells that cause them.  Although the main focus in any cancer case is how to remove the lesion or tumor and move beyond the grasp of this awful curse of a disease, it’s important to visit your dental office to stay on top of the oral complications that can result from treatment.

Radiation and Chemotherapy can cause a number of issues in a cancer victim’s mouth.  Potent medications used to target cancer cells often reduce the body’s ability to make white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets.  Since medications travel throughout the blood stream, the side effects are broad and greatly depend on which ones are being used and how long they are needed.  Radiation therapy tends to cause tissue damage near the site of treatment so the side effects I talk about have more to do with head and neck cancers than those affecting other body parts.

Possible Oral Complications from Cancer Treatment

The type of treatment and the duration of that treatment are going to vary quite a bit from person to person and the side effects to your mouth and teeth will also depend on how aggressive the medical staff will be with their approach. These are some of the most common ailments we see in the dental office that are directly related to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

  • Mucositis – Inflammations, ulcers, and viral patches can pop up at any time as a result of a lowered immune system and as a side effect of medications or situations where the salivary glands have been damaged.
  • Infections – Many of the oncology medications reduce your body’s ability to fight off infections.
  • Dry Mouth – Xerostomia is the clinical term we use to describe the condition of having reduced salivary function.  Hundreds of medications cause dry mouth and radiation treatment (when targeted near the salivary glands especially) can also cause debilitating dry mouth.
  • Changes in Taste – There are thousands of taste buds that can potentially stop working correctly
  • Jaw Joint Pain – Muscles in and around the jaw are susceptible to losing elasticity
  • Bleeding – As a result of your immune system being compromised, bacteria in and around the teeth and gums are able to colonize and cause infection.
  • Cavities – When you don’t have enough spit to hydrate and protect your teeth, the chances of getting cavities increases substantially.


When To See Your Dentist

Before Treatment – A complete evaluation prior to treatment isn’t always possible but most physicians want to rule out infections throughout the body prior to any surgeries.  Believe it or not, there are potentially millions of germs living in the human mouth that can and will spread through the bloodstream and inhibit your body’s ability to heal.  In order to minimize complications, a comprehensive set of X-rays and exam by your dentist is preferred. Teeth that have a poor prognosis often need to be removed prior to any head and neck surgery.  I know that sounds drastic, but the last thing anyone needs while they are trying to become cancer free is an emergency situation due to decayed or diseased teeth.

During Treatment – As mentioned before, side effects from cancer medications and treatments can be quite debilitating.  Your dental team can help you stay ahead of dry mouth that can lead to cavities and infections.  Getting your teeth cleaned more often will keep the tartar and bacteria under control and they can also help you find products that heal and soothe.

After Treatment – Even when cancer has been eliminated, the side effects from treatment can last a long time.  For example, if head and neck radiation damaged the salivary glands or bone holding the teeth in,  a person may never have the same resistance to decay and/or periodontal disease.  It’s important to find out how often the patient needs to have their teeth cleaned and which teeth need to be monitored closely.


Reducing Risks for Decay and Dry Mouth Symptoms During Treatment

In all honesty, my personal recommendations for cancer patients are very similar to folks who are healthy.  Staying hydrated and eating foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals will help your body heal.  Great brushing habits are critical for removing the plaque germs that cause cavities.  Flossing everyday will address the bacteria hiding below the gums.  Using a rehydrating and repairing rinse after your teeth are clean will keep your teeth strong and resistant to damage.

My favorite high powered and affordable brush can be found here.

My favorite toothpaste is here.

Take a look at my favorite dry mouth rinse for daily use here.

**Although most patients going through cancer treatment can continue their normal healthy dental habits, sometimes an oncologist will recommend a patient suspend their flossing routine.  This isn’t common, but some strong medications can lead to bleeding disorders and if you get instructed NOT to floss, just make sure to have a thorough conversation about the reasons why.  Every case is unique, so I would never want to go against a doctor’s orders.


For extreme dry mouth symptoms, please read this blog post!




featured image courtesy of Pixabay 

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