In Singapore, about 37 people are diagnosed with cancer every day. Colon, lung, prostate and breast cancers are the most common cancers (source: Singapore Cancer Society).
Most people would logically associate oral cancer treatment (including tongue cancer) with dentists (usually oral surgeons and oncologists working together). However, few people realize that dentists also have a role to play for patients with other forms of cancer including head & neck cancer, breast cancer, etc.
Before Cancer Treatment
Once cancer has been diagnosed and before any surgery and/or treatment such as radiation, chemotherapy or radiotherapy is started, it is important for a cancer patient to make a trip to the dentist, especially if it has been some time since he or she has had a regular check-up.
A dental assessment is very important at this stage to identify if there are outstanding gum problems or decayed teeth that need to be extracted prior to commencing cancer treatment. While one’s dental condition may appear to have very little to do with the cancer treatment, research has consistently shown a very close relationship between a person’s oral health and their body’s health.
Our team of dental specialists have seen cases of cancer patients who were not aware of the need for a dental assessment before undergoing cancer treatment, and experienced oral complications during their treatment. For example, patients with decayed teeth which required extraction experienced pain in that area, and at the cancer treatment stage, it is tough decision to perform an extraction since there is a good chance that the wound site would not heal, and the bone in that area could die (this is known as bone necrosis).
A simple dental assessment by an experienced dental specialist can be done in about 30 minutes, would confirm whether cancer treatment can go ahead as scheduled, or whether some pressing dental problems need to be addressed prior to cancer treatment. This step can save patients much cost, pain and psychological trauma, and also help medical specialists manage their cancer patients more smoothly.
After Cancer Treatment
Radiation and chemotherapy are the most common treatments for cancer patients, either on their own, or in combination with surgery. There are several side effects of such treatment and one of the major side effects is dentally-related.
Our saliva has a very important function – it naturally cleanses the mouth. Thus, when there is poor saliva flow, a person would be prone to cavities and other mouth infections. Dry mouth or xerostomia is usually associated with patients undergoing cancer treatment. Xerostomia affects the taste buds and causes mouth infections. Mouth ulcers are also common resulting in patients experiencing discomfort when eating.
Tips on dry mouth management include:
- Using non-alcohol based mouthwashes – however, do be aware that the chemicals in some mouthwashes may cause some discomfort for oral cancer patients post-treatment;
- Using mouthwashes that contain natural enzymes to help to digest food that is trapped in the mouth;
- Using fluoride gel on the teeth and moisturizing gel on the lips and gums;
- Drinking lots of water; and
- Seeing your dentist regularly to ensure that your oral hygiene is well maintained.
Our colleagues at the Princess Margaret Hospital-University Health Network in Toronto, Canada also have a very informative website on Dental Cancer Treatments. Click here for more information.
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