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Cancer and Oral Health

Cancer and Oral Health

Anyone can develop cancer. Since the risk of being diagnosed with cancer increases with age, most cases occur in adults who are middle aged or older. About 78% of all cancers are diagnosed in persons 55 years of age and older. In the US, men have slightly less than a 1 in 2 lifetime risk of developing cancer; for women, the risk is a little more than 1 in 3.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 11.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive in January 2007. Some of these individuals were cancer-free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease. In the U.S., cancer accounts for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths.
With these huge numbers of people dealing with cancer in their lives, there?s no doubt that all of us know at least one person – if not several people – who have cancer, and may be just living with it, not to die from it. If you are one of those who have cancer, or know someone who has cancer, there are several things you should know in relation to oral health. And because our mouth is essential to eating, speech, and much more, maintaining a comfortable and healthy mouth is essential!
There are several oral health implications of cancer therapy you should be aware of, and I will group these into two areas: radiotherapy (radiation therapy) and chemotherapy.
  • With radiotherapy, problems can occur with dry mouth, inflammation and ulceration of the mouth’s tissues, fungal infections, gum disease, and uncontrolled cavities, to name a few.
  • With chemotherapy, there can be additional problems, such as oral bleeding, lip cracking, and oral pain.

I’ll group management of oral health into three areas for cancer patients: before therapy, during therapy, and after therapy.
  • Before therapy, any teeth that could potentially need extraction should be removed. Professional hygiene care and completion of preventive and restorative dental treatment should also be completed.
  • During therapy, careful evaluation for infections and treatment if needed, use of over-the-counter and prescription medications to provide symptomatic relief of oral inflammation, and continued professional hygiene care are needed.
  • After therapy, there should be continued assessment and communication with the dentist for any infections (gum or tooth) that appear, continued symptomatic relief of any oral irritations, and ongoing professional hygiene care.
In the best-case scenario, an oncologist, primary care physician, and dentist should all work together with the patient in a multidisciplinary approach BEFORE therapy is started. The worst-case scenario is when that communication does not take place and the patient suffers significantly because of it.
If you or someone you know has cancer, be sure a dentist is included in the approach to their care.
Dental care may not save their life, but then again, you might be surprised.