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Cancer Treatment & Dental Care

Patients who undergo cancer treatment sometimes are unaware that it can affect the teeth, gums, salivary glands and other oral tissues. In some cases, patients delay or stop their cancer treatment because they experience painful side effects in their mouths. To help manage these oral side effects, participating dentists and oncologists can work together before and during cancer treatment to make recovery as comfortable as possible.

Oral Health and Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can cause several oral side effects:

  • Inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membranes
  • Painful mouth and gums
  • An increase in the risk of developing oral and systemic infections
  • Xerostomia (commonly called 'dry mouth'), a condition in which saliva is thickened, reduced or absent
  • Rampant tooth decay
  • Burning, peeling or swelling tongue
  • Stiffness in the jaw
  • Impaired ability to eat, speak or swallow
  • Change in ability to taste
  • Poor diet because of problems with eating

Before Cancer Treatment

When possible, schedule a thorough dental check up at least two weeks before treatment begins. At this visit, you can update your medical history record and provide the telephone number for the physician who is handling the cancer therapy.

During and After Cancer Treatment

During cancer treatment, you should continue to gently brush twice a day unless a participating dentist recommends otherwise. You should use fluoride toothpaste.

Patients who receive cancer treatment of the head and neck sometimes discover that they can not tolerate the flavour of their regular toothpaste. If this happens to you, you can try another flavour that will not irritate mouth tissues.

Continue to gently floss once a day. If the gums are sore or bleeding in places, you should avoid those areas but continue to floss other teeth until the condition improves.

A participating dentist may recommend a mouthrinse in addition to daily brushing. You also may be advised to use fluoride gel at home to help reduce the likelihood of tooth decay.

Rinse your mouth several times a day with a solution of baking soda and salt followed by a plain water rinse. Use one-quarter teaspoon of baking soda and one-eighth teaspoon of salt in one cup of warm water. This is particularly helpful if you experience vomiting after cancer treatment.

If xerostomia develops, a participating dentist may recommend a saliva replacement available at chemists. Taking frequent sips of water, sucking on ice chips or sugar-free lollies, or chewing sugar-free gum may provide relief.

Eat a balanced diet. Soft, moist foods such as cooked cereals, mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs may be suitable if your mouth is sore.

Avoid using tobacco and alcohol and schedule regular dental check ups. A participating dentist and your physician both want your treatment to be as safe and effective as possible.

Cancer Treatment and Oral Health

Dental care is an important element of cancer treatment. As soon as possible after a diagnosis of cancer is made, your treatment team should involve a participating dentist. If you will undergo treatment, you should do the following:

  • Schedule a dental examination and cleaning before cancer treatment begins and periodically during the course of treatment
  • Inform participating general and cosmetic dentists that you will be treated for cancer
  • Discuss dental procedures such as extractions or insertion of dental implants with your oncologist before starting the cancer treatment
  • Ask a participating dentist to check and adjust removable dentures as needed
  • Inform a participating dentist and physician about any bleeding of the gums, pain or unusual feeling in the teeth or gums, or any dental infections
  • Update your medical record with a participating dentist to include the cancer diagnosis and treatments
  • Provide a participating dentist and oncologist with each other's name and telephone number
  • Maintain excellent oral hygiene to reduce the risk of infection
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