ADVERTISEMENT

Consider Dental Issues Before Beginning Cancer Treatment

Dentists advise resolving tooth and gum issues before starting cancer treatment.

BY LACEY MEYER
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2011
Bettye Davis admits she has never had very good teeth. But when she received a diagnosis of salivary gland cancer, she was surprised that her oncologist recommended she visit a dentist before beginning radiation treatments to her jaw.

“When we first saw her, she still had quite a few teeth, but she had severe periodontal disease and severe bone loss,” says Dennis Abbott, DDS, Davis’ dentist. Knowing radiation would do more damage, he recommended removing the remainder of her teeth and allowing time to heal before she began 33 radiation treatments. 

“We knew that if we took the teeth out after radiation, we risked the bone not healing well, which would have meant osteonecrosis, dead bone in her mouth, and lots of systemic problems.” 

According to the National Cancer Institute, eliminating pre-existing dental and mucosal infections and instituting a comprehensive oral hygiene protocol before and throughout therapy can reduce the severity and frequency of oral complications from cancer therapy. Abbott says the NCI recommendations, as well as an increasing number of studies, are bringing more recognition to the importance of dental issues before, during and after cancer treatment.

Abbott’s goal is to help patients maintain healthy teeth and reduce the risk of future infection with an oral care plan that eliminates or stabilizes disease that could produce complications during or following therapy. These complications can range from irradiated bone and gums not healing properly to an oral bacterial infection spreading throughout the body due to chemotherapy-induced immunosuppression. 

Radiation to the head and neck area can also cause severe dry mouth (xerostomia) and loss of the protective effects of saliva, which accelerates existing tooth decay and can damage tiny blood vessels in the bone that deliver nutrients and oxygen that allow the bone to grow. So any tooth extractions or invasive dental procedures in irradiated bone are likely to result in slow healing, leading to pain and infection.

Oral complications may be acute (developing during therapy) or chronic (developing or continuing long after therapy), with the most common and significant being oral mucositis (inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the mouth), salivary gland dysfunction, taste dysfunction, pain and dry mouth. Limited or no saliva can lead to increased risk of infections in the mouth, gum disease and dental disease, which can progress rapidly and be difficult to control. 

Available medications to stimulate saliva production rely on residual salivary gland function, if enough function remains. Mouth gels, rinses and sprays can moisturize the mouth, but unlike natural saliva, they don’t contain antibodies; growth and repair factors; fluoride; and calcium phosphates that help keep teeth healthy and strong. 

Abbott says this means patients must be proactive in caring for their teeth to prevent cavities. Topical antimicrobials or antiseptics can also help control infections, including dental decay related to acid-producing bacteria.

With radiation therapy directed at her salivary glands, Davis, 73, experienced extreme dry mouth, especially at night. But, she says, a mint-flavored antioxidant topical gel Abbott prescribed, AO ProVantage, effectively relieved this symptom. “It has really helped because it keeps your mouth refreshed, plus it helps you have more moisture in your mouth,” Davis says.

The decision to extract teeth prior to radiation, Abbott says, is based on the health of the tooth, the condition of the gums and bone around the tooth, the amount of radiation the bone around the tooth is scheduled to receive and the area that will be radiated. Gum disease is a cause for tooth extraction prior to therapy. Other causes include problems with previous root canals, tooth fractures and broken fillings that can’t be adequately restored. 

“You can’t dismiss oral health because it affects systemic health,” Abbott says. “The mouth has a huge amount of bacteria, and if it’s not taken care of, there is the risk of that bacteria getting into the bloodstream.”

The American Dental Association recommends all cancer patients schedule a dental exam at least two weeks before beginning treatment. This should involve a full comprehensive exam, gum probing around every tooth and X-rays. It may also include removal of local sites of irritation, such as broken teeth, or identifying chronic infections, such as gum disease. 

“Those conditions need to be managed up front because we are very limited after treatment and the complication risk is so significant that not doing it before can lead to significant difficulties after,” says Joel Epstein, DMD, MSD, director of oral medicine services at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif.

Appropriate healing time for dental care prior to treatment is imperative, Epstein adds, because a surgically treated area in the mouth becomes vulnerable to bacteria. Patients with suppressed immune systems can develop infection, which could result in a treatment delay or dose reduction, ultimately affecting the treatment outcome and survival.

Epstein says two weeks of healing time is ideal, but the overall goal is to have the right dental treatment coordinated with medical therapy to avoid those types of risks. Therefore communication between the dentist and oncology team is key.

ADVERTISEMENT
Related Articles
Personalizing Cancer Care with Precision Medicine
BY MAUREEN SALAMON
The personalized medicine revolution is gaining momentum.
Prehabilitation Aims to Prepare Patients for What Lies Ahead
BY JANE HILL
Preparing physically for treatment could play a role in recovery of cancer.
Biomarkers Help Patients Make Better Medical Decisions
BY LAURA BEIL
The information gleaned from cancer biomarkers can be both a treasure chest and a Pandora’s box.
Personalized Medicine Should Include High-Quality, High-Value Care
BY LEN LICHTENFELD, MD
Personalized medicine should be based on science, but also on quality care for the individual patient.
Getting Personal: Cancer Genomics
BY LINDSAY RAY
Next-generation sequencing takes treatment to a whole new level.
ADVERTISEMENT
$auto_registration$