Make a dentist a partner in the cancer care team

February 4, 2010

Although chemotherapy and radiation are effective treatments in the fight against cancer, they often can affect healthy tissue.

That means that in addition to the nausea and hair loss often associated with cancer treatment, some patients are surprised to experience oral complications ranging from dry mouth and canker sores to difficulty swallowing, tooth decay and life-threatening oral infections. The most common name for this host of conditions is oral mucositis, and it can be debilitating to the point that it is extremely difficult for a patient to eat, drink or swallow.

According to dentists at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry, mucositis occurs because cancer therapies target rapidly dividing cells. Several parts of the human body – including the mouth, the hair and the stomach – are made up of these rapidly dividing cells.

“When these cells are unable to constantly repair tissue that is under constant trauma, as is the tissue lining the inside of the mouth, breakdown occurs, resulting in a very sore and potentially enhanced portal for infections to enter the body,” says Dr. Charles W. Wakefield, professor and director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency Program at HSC-Baylor College of Dentistry.

People undergoing cancer treatment should visit their dentist before, during and after care to help prevent serious mouth problems and minimize discomfort. While not all oral complications can be avoided, ensuring a patient’s mouth is healthy before initiating cancer therapy will help reduce side effects and avoid delays in the cancer treatment schedule. Significant advances have been made for oral problems of all types, but especially for cancer patients.

During the treatment stage, it is important for cancer patients to provide their dentist with contact information for their cancer doctor, Dr. Wakefield says. This communication is key to achieving successful outcomes and minimizing complications.

— Marketing & Communications