But these other health issues still need attention, especially when the treatment of cancer has a lasting impact on other areas of your body.
It’s something that Dr Liesl-Mari Els of Lumino The Dentists Glenfield, has experienced first-hand in her line of work and feels passionately about.
“Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer,” she says. “And what I am noticing is that people don’t know just how severely their oral health is affected by cancer treatment,” she adds.
On a personal level, Liesl has seen first-hand how cancer can affect one’s oral health. Her own mother suffered from cancer and so she understands how difficult this time can be in a person’s life.
Liesl says the fact of the matter is that cancer treatment has a major impact on all parts of one’s health, including oral health.
“Many treatments have side effects that impact a patient’s mouth, teeth, and salivary glands,” she says.
“I was finding patients had not been told of these by doctors,” she says.
These side effects can make it difficult to eat, talk, chew, or swallow. Patients may experience more rapid tooth decay; a burning feeling in the mouth or throat; mouth sores; and infections in the mouth.
Liesl says if your mouth is not as healthy as possible prior to cancer treatment, you may be more susceptible to infection. If the infection is serious enough, it can delay your cancer treatment.
She adds that fortunately, with good care, you and your dentist can reduce the risk of these side effects and manage them if they do occur.
Below we outline some important information around cancer treatments and oral health.
Types of cancer treatments:
Which treatment you have depends on the type of cancer you have.
Oral health side effects of cancer treatments:
Many side effects during cancer treatment will disappear once treatment stops; however, some are longer lasting. Side effects include:
Radiation therapy can especially change the amount and consistency of your saliva. This increases your risk of dental decay. To prevent dental decay, your dentist will likely recommend maintaining very good oral hygiene and special fluoride treatments during radiation therapy. This treatment, along with a diet low in sugar, can help protect your teeth. Your doctor or dentist may also recommend exercises to prevent stiffness in the jaw.
Chemotherapy has different types of oral side effects depending on the person and the types of medicine used to treat cancer. These side effects include sore mouth and gums (eating, swallowing and talking may become hard to do), burning or swelling of the tongue, dry mouth, infection and foods not tasting the same as they usually do.
Preventing adverse effects:
Patients who have good dental health before treatment have a lower risk of developing some side effects, therefore, it is important to see a dentist at least 4 weeks before starting cancer treatment.
Ask your dentist to share details about your oral health with your cancer doctor. This way, both doctors can work together to plan your care.
Typically, you should allow at least 2 weeks for healing between dental surgery and starting cancer treatment. You should also talk with your dentist or another member of your health care team about which mouth problems you should tell your dentist about right away. If you’ve started your cancer treatment and haven’t seen a dentist, see one as soon as possible.
Regular communication with your health care team is important for preventing dental and oral side effects. During treatment, the following tips may help improve your oral health and prevent side effects:
If you experience any dental or oral side effects during treatment, let your health care team know right away. Relieving side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care. The specific treatment your doctor recommends will depend on your symptoms. There are several common treatments for dental and oral side effects:
Liesl-Mari Els graduated from the University of Stellenbosch in 2003 with a B.Ch.D./BDS (stel). She has a special interest in general dentistry and crown-and-bridge work. Liesl-Mari loves meeting different people when at work. Her aim is to make her patients happy and feel like family at all times.