A Cancer Survivor's Guide: Managing Dental Disorders after Cancer Treatment

Categories: Cancer Survivorship, Survivorship & Side Effects

December 4, 2019

Unfortunately, cancer is a well-armed and very prepared opponent when it attacks the body. This means that the treatment to send cancer to the curb must be just as tough...and it is.

Cancer treatments are designed to slow the growth of, kill, and prevent new cancer cells from growing. The medicine used must be very potent in order to eliminate this disease. Unfortunately, this means that life after cancer often comes with both short and long-term side effects including dental disorders.

This is your guide to an in-depth look at which cancer treatments cause dental disorders, why they cause oral health issues, the most common dental issues experienced by cancer survivors, and how to manage and prevent them. 

What Kinds of Cancer Treatments Cause Dental Disorders?

Although surgery to remove cancer can cause side effects, it is chemotherapy and radiation that is most likely to result in dental disorders.

Oral health issues can arise both during and after treatment. Cancer cells are fast-growing cells and chemo and radiation are designed to kill, slow, and stop the growth of cancerous cells. However, in the process, treatment isn't able to determine healthy fast-growing cells from cancerous cells. This means your cancer treatment can affect healthy fast-growing cells as well. 

The cells in the lining of your mouth happen to be normal, fast-growing cells. Radiation and chemotherapy can both slow and halt the growth of these cells as well. This means the tissues in the mouth are able to repair themselves because they can't regenerate new cells. Radiation therapy is also capable of breaking down the oral tissues, salivary glands, and even bone.  

It is important to note that dental issues resulting from chemotherapy tend to be shorter in duration than those resulting from radiation. It is also imperative to understand that radiation around the head and neck makes cancer survivors more prone to dental disorders due to its close proximity to the mouth.

How Do You Prevent and Manage Dental Disorders?

There isn't a way to 100% prevent the occurrence of a dental disorder due to cancer treatment. However, there are measures you can take to minimize and manage oral health issues. Dental health should be managed before, during, and after treatment for the desired results and to reduce complications. 

Before Cancer Treatment

Being proactive is important. Before cancer treatment begins, patients should try to visit their dentist for a thorough dental and mouth check-up. If any issues are found, they should be corrected before your cancer treatment begins. If you are diagnosed with a chronic issue, work with both your oncologist and dentist to create a plan for management during treatment. 

The benefits of preventive oral care cannot be understated. In addition to increasing the likelihood that your cancer treatment plan is successful, it also reduces the chances of oral health issues causing very serious health issues later on. 

During Cancer Treatment

Work closely with your oncologist and dentist to carefully monitor the health of your mouth and immediately treat any issues that arise.

The key is to catch and treat any oral health issues as soon as possible to minimize the possibility of complications and discomfort.

It is also important to note that treating dental disorders in a timely fashion may increase the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Allowing dental disorders to persist during treatment, means your body is now fighting not one but two enemies and you want cancer to have your undivided attention.

Let's take a look at tips to help ease the symptoms of dental issues during cancer treatment.

Mouth Sores

Mouth sores are a common side effect of certain types of chemo and radiation. Here's what you can do to ease the symptoms:

  • Use a gentle toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Clean dentures well
  • Keep moisture in your lips with the use of a soothing lip balm
  • Eat cold foods or foods that are soft and bland
  • Use a straw when drinking liquids
  • Ask your oncologist about meds to relieve the pain

Bleeding of the Mouth

They are exactly as their name implies, little sores or ulcers in the mouth that are extremely painful and can lead to bleeding, an infection, not eating, inability to drink water, and refusal to take meds. Symptoms include red or swollen gums, blood in the mouth, increased mucus, white patches, bruises, and pink dots in the mouth. Here are some tips to ease the symptoms:

  • Rinse your mouth with ice water every two hours and hold ice chips in your mouth
  • Use a toothbrush with soft bristles and a mild toothpaste
  • Eat soft foods that will not irritate your gums
  • keep moisture in your lips with a mild lip balm

Dry Mouth and Thickening Saliva

Radiation, chemo, medications, and dehydration can all be causes of dry mouth or thickening saliva. When your salivatory glands become irritated they produce either less saliva, thicker saliva or both.

The severity of the condition varies depending on the individual. Symptoms include trouble swallowing food, thickened saliva, food residue left in the mouth, and cracked lips and gums. This can lead to cavities and infections. Here's what you can do:

  • Drink fluids with meals, chew slowly and take small bites
  • Suck on ice chips
  • Rinse out mouth often with artificial saliva or doctor-approved solution
  • Keep lips moisturized
  • Chew sugarless gum

After Cancer Treatment

Please note that each individual is different. Some survivors may experience minimal to no mouth issues at all while others experience severe and late-onset side effects.

After treatment ends, cancer survivors should continue being proactive with dental health. There are times in which dental disorders present themselves down the road. Make sure that you are caring for your teeth properly. Brush and floss as recommended by your dentist. If you notice any issues with your gums, teeth, or mouth be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as possible with your dentist to resolve the issue. 

In addition to the most common dental disorders that can occur during treatment, cancer survivors may also experience tooth decay, gum disease, and changes in taste after cancer treatment.

Tooth Decay and Gum Disease

Tooth decay is a dental condition in which the enamel of your tooth is destroyed which creates tiny holes known as a cavity in your teeth. Gum disease is a condition in which the tissues that hold your teeth in place are affected. The key is to speak with your dentist as soon as possible in order to prevent tooth decay and gum disease from affecting your teeth and gums any further and coming up with a solution to restore your mouth's health. 

Changes in Taste

A patient can experience changes in taste months after the end of chemotherapy. It is a result of nausea, vomiting, and damage to the oral tissues. Maintaining good oral hygiene, eating small meals more frequently, marinate meats, and flavor foods with bold seasonings and spices are a few of the things you can do to help manage the changes in taste after cancer treatment.

The bottom line is that understanding how your oral health may be affected by cancer treatment and taking the proper steps to manage it will lead to an improved quality of life. 

If you have any questions or concerns about dental issues before, during or after your cancer treatments, it is always best to consult both your dentist and your doctor for the best plan of action.

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