Taking Care of Your Teeth Through Cancer
October is National Dental Hygiene Month. You may be thinking to yourself what does cancer have to do with dental hygiene? A lot actually! According to National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 1/3 of all cancer patients develop side effects that affect the mouth such as dry mouth and mouth sores. Your cancer healthcare team should definitely include a dentist. Practicing good dental hygiene before, during, and after cancer treatment is very important to protect your teeth and to stay healthier over all!
Why should I see a dentist before cancer treatment?
Your dentist can help make sure your mouth is as healthy as possible before beginning cancer treatment to help lower your risk for dental side effects during treatment. If you mouth is not healthy before treatment, you may be at higher risk for infections or other serious mouth side effects that could delay or stop your cancer treatments, so it is important to address any issues before you start treatment. Need help finding a dentist? Use the American Dental Association’s locator to find a dentist in your area.
How does cancer treatment affect the mouth?
Radiation to the head and neck and chemotherapy can damage salivary glands leading to dry mouth. Why is dry mouth dangerous? Saliva actually helps keep teeth naturally clean! When the salivary glands do not produce enough saliva, this puts you at increased risk for cavities, tooth decay, and gum disease.
During cancer treatment, your immune system may be compromised which makes you more at risk for infections. A mouth infection can present in different ways—sores, white film, bleeding, or swelling. Tell your healthcare team immediately if you notice any of these signs.
All of the issues listed in this section can also contribute to malnutrition.
How does dental hygiene relate to malnutrition?
Especially during cancer treatment, it is important to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet to help you feel better, maintain your strength, and speed your recovery. Dental issues can make eating difficult. Mouth sores, infections, or sensitive gums can make eating painful. Dry mouth makes chewing and swallowing food hard without saliva to aid in digestion. Not eating well can make other side effects like pain and fatigue worse too. Malnutrition can cause treatment delays or stop treatment all together. This is yet another reason to see a dentist before treatment begins!
How can I practice good dental hygiene?
Visit your dentist office for regular cleanings and check-ups as recommended for you. Visit your dentist before and after cancer treatment and during treatment if any new issues arise. Brush twice a day and floss once a day. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Choose only sugar-free gum and mints. Avoid tobacco products. If you experience dry mouth, ask your dentist for a toothpaste or mouth rinse that will promote saliva production.
Where can I learn more about cancer and dental health?
The following resources can tell you everything you need to know about cancer and dental health:
American Dental Association
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society