A cancer diagnosis is life-changing and will often require treatment that can cause a change for the entire body, including oral health. Those who are diagnosed will often be urged to seek dental consultation to ensure that the mouth is ready for the upcoming treatment, as well as scheduling checkups to ensure the future health of the mouth, teeth, and body. For patients with a medical port under their skin, keeping up with dental checkups is especially important due to the frequency of anti-clotting medication that is prescribed during treatment. These medications can intensify bleeding during dental surgeries and procedures, increasing the risk of infection. The following are steps that should be taken before, during, and after cancer treatment.
It’s vital for patients to visit the dentist before cancer treatment to make sure there are no issues in the mouth that could potentially lead to infection. They are urged to set up an appointment for a checkup, x-rays, and cleaning in order for the dentist can properly assess the current state of oral health. For cancer patients preparing to undergo chemo or radiation, the more preventative measures that can be taken to avoid potential infection risk, the better. Dentists will look to provide fluoride treatments, treat existing cavities, gum disease, and remove or restore infected teeth with implants or crowns, as well as bridge work. Patients are also urged to brush and floss regularly while making sure to maintain their diet through their cancer treatment to also help the weakened immune system.
During Cancer Treatment
There are certain symptoms to look out for in regards to oral health that patients should be aware of. All of these may lead to more significant issues if left untreated, especially while undergoing cancer treatment.
Dry mouth: It’s a common side effect of many medications inhibiting the mouth from providing enough saliva to lubricate the tongue and teeth. Saliva actually plays a vital role in the body, from digestion to keeping the teeth and gums healthy. Certain cancer drugs may promote dry mouth, making people more susceptible to cavities and gum disease while undergoing treatment. It’s important for all patients to check in with their dentists during this time to go over treatment options like artificial saliva or oral rinses that provide fluoride, helping reduce tooth decay. It’s also essential for patients to keep a clean mouth, making sure to brush regularly, floss daily, and drink plenty of water to help keep the mouth hydrated. Staying away from alcohol can help alleviate dry mouth, especially alcohol-based mouth washes.
Mouth ulcers: Sometimes called canker sores, mouth sores form on the soft tissue of the mouth anywhere from the tongue, to the gums, and even lips. They are often a symptom of chemotherapy and radiation and can be painful for patients and open the body to infection. Cancer treatments can reduce the body’s ability to clot blood, which can make these sores bleed at times. They can also be painful, making it difficult for patients to eat, speak, or adequately brush their teeth, causing an already compromised immune system to suffer even more. Dentists can offer patients topical treatments for these sores that can provide temporary pain relief while also helping promote healing to close the wound. During the topical numbing treatments, patients are encouraged to brush gently to avoid tearing the open wound further. These sores also benefit from proper oral hygiene to avoid and further contamination from food particles that may transfer off of teeth. Patients are also encouraged to rinse often using saline and baking soda rinse to keep the mouth a neutral pH.
Facial pain: Patients who receive radiation therapy near the head and neck can experience jaw pain as a common side effect. There can also be pain when biting, along with frequent headaches. Some people receiving cancer treatment may also experience scarring around the jaw muscles. There have also been cases of TMJ reported from patients, sometimes amplified by the grinding of teeth caused by stress. Dentists can help alleviate these issues by offering anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxers, and night guards, which help with jaw clenching while patients are asleep. Pillows designed to help reduce pressure on the neck can also help people who are receiving treatments for cancer around the neck area, as they distribute body weight more evenly along the upper part of the body.
Gum disease: As people age, their gums often begin to recede and feel the wear and tear effects of improper brushing and neglect. These issues are amplified by chemotherapy and radiation for cancer patients and can lead to lasting damage. Gums that are inflamed and that bleed easily very often can leave patients susceptible to infection, which can quickly spread to the rest of the body. People experiencing these kinds of gum problems should be sure to make an appointment with their dentist immediately so they can recommend treatment options like a steroid rinse, anti-bacterial or anti-fungal rinse, as well as other anti-inflammatory options.
Even once cancer treatment has ended, many patients find that they still suffer from dry mouth and other symptoms. That’s why it’s vital to stay hydrated and maintain a proper diet to avoid developing cavities or gum disease. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine can also help retain moisture in the mouth, also with frequent sugar-free gum chewing to help produce saliva and push it throughout the mouth and between teeth helping get rid of food particles. Keeping up with regular checkups is also a must to ensure that the symptoms from treatment haven’t damaged the teeth, gums, and general oral cavity.
Cancer treatment can be an overwhelming undertaking with many outside factors that could impact overall health, including oral care. Making sure the mouth is in good shape before moving forward with radiation or chemotherapy can prevent complications down the line. It’s important for patients who are about to enter cancer treatment to communicate to their dentists that they are looking for preventative measures as well as a plan to monitor their oral health during the length of their treatment. With proper care, those are vigilant about their oral health will have fewer problems during and after cancer treatment.