Dental and oral health refers to the well-being of the entire mouth, which includes the teeth, gums, mucosa (lining of the mouth) and salivary glands. Cancer or not, many people tend to overlook dental health, but it is a critical component of overall health.
Without good oral health, many times the rest of the body can be at risk due to the vast amount of bacteria living in the mouth, which can create problems. Oral health has been linked to a variety of health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. As a result, the World Health Organization has integrated oral health into its efforts to prevent chronic disease.
When most people think about the side effects of cancer treatment, they conjure images of nausea and hair loss—but there are a variety of other common side effects, including oral complications such as mouth sores (mucositis) and dry mouth (xerostomia). These seemingly small complications can have serious consequences because they can interfere with planned cancer treatment, reduce quality of life and even lead to life-threatening infections.
Several types of cancer treatments are associated with oral side effects, including chemotherapy, bone marrow transplantation and radiation to the head and neck. These treatments can slow or stop the growth of new cells, limiting the ability of oral tissue to repair itself. What’s more, some cancer treatments can upset the healthy balance of bacteria in the mouth, which can lead to mouth sores, infections and tooth decay. Finally, radiation to the head and neck can directly damage and break down oral tissue, salivary glands and bone.
Often cancer treatment can compromise the immune system, and an invasive oral procedure could be risky in terms of infection. If dental treatment is absolutely necessary during cancer treatment, to reduce the risk of infection it is important to coordinate it between chemotherapy cycles and at a time when white blood cell counts are high.
Once cancer treatment is complete, it is important to continue staying on top of oral health, as cancer treatment can have long-term effects. High-dose radiation can result in a lifelong risk of dry mouth, cavities and even osteonecrosis of the jaw, which is a severe bone disease that occurs when the jawbone is exposed and begins to starve from lack of blood. Because of this risk, this subset of patients should avoid invasive surgical procedures, including extractions that involve irradiated bone.
“Go to the dentist and have everything that you can have corrected for oral health done prior to starting Cancer treatment,” and then maintain that good oral health and general health for the rest of your life.