Your mouth is your food’s first stop in the digestive system. Saliva helps break food down as you chew to start the process of turning food into fuel for your body. Fueling your body with nutritious foods is especially important during cancer treatment. However, the side effects of cancer treatment can make eating enough difficult.
Oral Complications/Side Effects
Oral complications is the term used to describe side effects from cancer and cancer treatment that affect the mouth including the teeth, gums, lining (mucosa) and salivary glands. Oral complications occur in nearly 40 percent of patients who receive chemotherapy, approximately 80 percent of those who have a stem cell transplant, and in nearly all patients who receive radiation for head and neck malignancies. Some of the most common oral side effects of cancer treatment are listed below by treatment.
Side effects of chemotherapy include:
Side effects of radiation to the head and neck include:
Side effects of surgery performed on the mouth, tongue, or salivary glands include:
- Oral pain
- Dry mouth
Myeloma patients taking bisphosphonate treatment to prevent bone loss are at risk for a rare but serious side effect called “osteonecrosis of the jaw” (ONJ). ONJ causes parts of the jaw bone to die, leading to further complications. Doctors will stop bisphosphonate treatment if ONJ occurs.
If you experience side effects that make eating difficult, tell your healthcare team. It’s important to address these side effects as soon as possible. If you are not able to eat enough during cancer treatment, you are at risk for malnutrition. Malnutrition is when your body does not consume enough or absorb enough calories or nutrients to carry out healthy bodily functions. Malnutrition can cause treatment delays, stop treatment, and if not resolved, lead to death.
Caring for Your Mouth
Before treatment starts, seek treatment for all existing dental issues to lower the risk of severe oral complications. During cancer treatment, the following guidelines can help you care for your mouth and lower the risk of complications and manage side effects.
- Brush your teeth 2-3 times per day with a soft-bristled bush and a mild, fluoride toothpaste.
- Floss, gently, once a day.
- Rinse you mouth every two hours with a mixture of water, baking soda, and salt.
- Mix ¼ tsp. baking soda, ¼ tsp. salt, and 1 qt. warm water.
- Use an antibacterial rinse 2-3 times a day (Avoid mouthwash with alcohol, which can irritate a sore mouth).
- Keep dentures clean and soak them in an antimicrobial solution daily.
- Check your mouth for sores or white patches. If you notice any changes, tell you healthcare team.
- Use lip balm to keep your lips from dying out or cracking.
- Stay well hydrated by drinking fluids throughout the day.
- Use ice chips, sugar-free gums or mints to help keep your mouth moist.
- Ask you healthcare team if a saliva substitute would be beneficial for you if you experience dry mouth.
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Dental and Oral Complications of Cancer Treatment Facts
American Dental Association: Cancer and Dental Health
National Cancer Institute: Oral Complications of Chemotherapy and Head/Neck Radiation (PDQ®)—Patient Version
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: Cancer Treatment and Oral Health
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