Cancer comes in many forms, and the treatments vary depending on type and location. Often this has minimal impact on existing dental work or on future dental treatment, but there are some situations that are very important to be aware of.
The two main categories or treatments for cancer are radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Both can affect your day-to-day oral health. Among all medications (not just for cancer) the most common side-effect is a reduction in saliva produced. Saliva is very important as it neutralizes excess acids in our mouths as well as lubricates the tissues and helps prevent food from sticking to the teeth and gums. Radiation treatment that includes the head and neck area can result in damage to your salivary glands and also cause a dry mouth. These can sometimes resolve, but during any periods of dryness, it is good to drink water frequently and swish it around to help mimic the lost saliva. There are also saliva-substitutes that can be found at the chemist that can help. An excessively dry mouth can lead to dramatically increased rates of cavities forming and cause irritation of the gums.
Radiation therapy can also affect the healing of the head and neck area. When bone is exposed to radiation it often doesn't heal as quickly. Fortunately, this is usually not a permanent problem and over time the bone can return to normal, but for the first 6 months or more after radiation to the head/neck it is important to avoid having any teeth removed as the area may not heal properly and can result in severe complications (osteoradionecrosis). If you have had radiation treatment then telling your dentist is extremely important, or if you are going to undergo radiation treatment it is important to have your teeth evaluated before the radiation exposure to address any problems that may arise in the near future.
Cancer can be quite scary but the treatments are ever improving and the sooner any problems are found and treated the better the outcome. Discuss any concerns with your dentist to help identify and prevent any further complications.
Written by Dentists Lisa Lailey and Ryan Smagalski