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Dental oncology: Caring for your oral health after cancer

Few experiences leave their indelible mark on health, relationships and spirituality as deeply as cancer. During this time, oral health and dental care can get overlooked or placed on the back burner until there is a problem.

Most people are familiar with cancer-related side effects like fatigue and hair and weight loss. But did you know treatment for cancer of all types, not just oral cancer, often increases the risks for mouth problems?

More than one third of cancer patients experience complications that can affect the mouth. Cancer and its treatment, including radiation therapy and chemotherapy, can disrupt the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth and weaken your immune system. The result: painful and debilitating effects on the inside lining of the mouth and throat, known medically as mucositis.  

Side effects related to your mouth, teeth and salivary glands can range from mild to severe and include:

  • Mouth sores
  • Infection
  • Severe dry mouth
  • Sensitive gums 
  • Jaw pain

Along with the risk of infection, mouth problems can make it hard to eat, talk, chew or swallow, leading to dehydration and malnutrition.

Fortunately, you can reduce and manage these risks with good dental care. That’s where dental oncology comes in.

What is dental oncology?

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Dental oncology is a focus of dentistry dedicated to meeting the unique dental and oral healthcare needs of cancer therapy. This area of oral medicine is devoted to improving the well-being and quality of life of people battling cancer before, during and after treatment.

Dental oncology goes beyond the scope of general dental treatment to include management of the mouth’s soft tissues and care for oral side effects specific to cancer therapy. A dental professional knowledgeable in dental oncology plays a vital role throughout cancer treatment by preventing and managing mouth sores, dental needs, oral pain and infections.

Dentists should be a key part of your multidisciplinary cancer care team. Your dental oncologist communicates directly with your medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and other team members to provide comprehensive care before, during and after your cancer treatments.

Dental health before, during and after cancer treatment

Ideally, you should visit your dentist for a checkup and treat any areas of concern before treatment starts. A healthy mouth can help you avoid an infection that could delay your treatment.  

Properly addressing these oral health concerns at this pretreatment stage can prevent or significantly reduce the severity of dental side effects that could complicate or even interrupt your cancer treatment schedule.

If you are undergoing cancer therapy and haven’t seen a dentist yet, don’t worry. Much can be done at each stage of the battle to help diminish the severity of side effects and reduce the risk of infection.

Even for the cancer survivor, a dental oncologist should be a member of an ongoing care team. Continuing dental care is particularly crucial if you are a head or neck cancer survivor or have received drugs that help treat a type of cancer that causes bone damage.

Tips for post-treatment dental care

Along with routine checkups and cleanings, the American Dental Association recommends the following to keep your mouth in top shape after cancer care:

  • Brush your teeth (and tongue) regularly with fluoride toothpaste
  • Floss daily
  • Rinse often to remove food from your mouth and reduce plaque buildup
  • Eat nutritious food to help boost your immune system
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products

Worried about your dental health during your cancer journey? Connect with a patient navigator who can help get you the resources you need.

About the author

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Dennis M. Abbott, D.D.S. is a member of the dental oncology medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center on the Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas campus.

Dental oncology: Caring for your oral health after cancer