Four reasons cancer patients should get to know their dentist

Seeing a dentist before cancer treatment can help minimize oral problems like mucositis and infection.

When you’re about to begin cancer treatment, seeing a dentist may seem like the last to-do item on an already-long list of priorities. But the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reminds cancer patients that dental checkups are important to prevent mouth problems from becoming serious or painful enough to stop or delay cancer treatments. Dr. Pamela Crilley, Medical Oncologist at our Philadelphia hospital, recommends that patients speak with their oncologists about the potential for oral side effects from cancer treatment ahead of time. “Problems may be reduced when a dentist has identified and treated potential problem areas,” says Dr. Crilley, who also serves as Chair of the Department of Medical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

Why is the dentist important?

Here are four reasons why cancer care should begin with an early visit to the dentist:

1) Some cancer treatments may increase your vulnerability to infections by lowering your white blood cell count. Before chemotherapy begins, have your dentist check to see if you have a gum infection, cavities that need filling, ill-fitting dentures or mouth sores. Addressing these issues well before treatment begins may help you avoid further complications later. “Communication between the dentist and the oncologist is helpful,” Dr. Crilley says.

2) Radiation therapy to the head or neck may affect your dental health. The treatments may reduce the calcium in tooth enamel, which may cause cavities or the kind of salivary gland damage that leads to dry mouth. Your dentist may recommend a fluoride gel or rinse to help harden the enamel, along with techniques for keeping the mouth moist. Other supportive care  therapies, including acupuncture, may also help. “If teeth need to be extracted, you should consider seeing an oral surgeon or dentist with radiation experience, as the jaw becomes more brittle after radiation,” adds Dr. Bradley Mons, Head and Neck Surgeon at our Tulsa hospital.

3) While taking some chemotherapy drugs, patients may experience damage to the mucosal tissues in the mouth and digestive tract, creating sores, a temporary condition called mucositis. Ask your dentist and oncologist to recommend strategies for reducing the pain and discomfort. Supportive therapies like cold lasers and naturopathic strategies may help. It’s important for patients to speak up if they experience discomfort, so doctors can promptly address pain or infections, Dr. Crilley says.

4) Ask your dentist for tips to keep your mouth as healthy as possible during cancer treatment. These may include:

  • Brushing with an extra-soft toothbrush after every meal and at bedtime
  • Flossing every day
  • Avoiding alcohol-based mouthwashes
  • Using fluoride gel
  • Rinsing with a diluted solution of baking soda and salt followed by plain water to moisten the mouth, which may help reduce the amount of cavity-causing bacteria and restore the pH balance after vomiting
  • Avoiding sugary candy, gum and soda
  • Avoiding other products that may lead to mouth problems, including toothpicks, sharp chips, acidic or spicy foods, tobacco and alcohol
  • Staying well hydrated during treatment

Learn more about ways to manage cancer-related side-effects.