Watch Your Mouth: Oral Mucositis for Cancer Survivors

September 18, 2018

The mouth is also part of the body, and yet, it is only in the past few years that oncologists have begun recommending patients see a dentist before they begin treatment to be sure the teeth and gums are in good shape.

About two weeks after I had my first chemotherapy treatment for stage 2B breast cancer, I noticed a few physical changes. My hair started falling out, so my husband shaved my head, and I had a number of small sores in my mouth. They were the little blisters I had had in the past when I ate something too spicy. I always called them canker sores.

Known in the cancer world as oral mucositis, these small, painful spots soon filled my mouth completely, making eating a real challenge because of the pain. My mouth was also very dry, which made it worse because my lips would stick to the sores and when I opened my mouth.

My oncologist awarded me the prize for the worst case of oral mucositis he had ever seen. I had gotten used to hearing these kind of superlatives when my oncologist would talk with me. It seems I don’t do anything just a little bit.

For the mucositis, he gave me liquid Novocain to numb the pain. So, I walked around with a mouth full of pain killer, spitting it out every five minutes or so to sip water and try to get some moisture in my mouth before taking another swig of pain killer.

He said to get a soft toothbrush so it wouldn’t aggravate the blisters, but the idea of putting any kind of toothbrush in my mouth was nixed. Too painful.

That was more than 30 years ago, and I am glad to hear that researchers are developing better approaches to the management and prevention of oral mucositis — and ones that will protect the teeth from more dryness which can cause decay.

Overall, the mouth has been overlooked when it comes to cancer treatment. The mouth is also part of the body, and yet, it is only in the past few years that oncologists have begun recommending patients see a dentist before they begin treatment to be sure the teeth and gums are in good shape.

Dental issues can be an issue for patients receiving all kinds of treatments including radiation and chemotherapy. Those diagnosed with head and neck cancer are given the most information because the usual treatment involves radiation, which can lead to bone loss and the need for multiple root canals. There are even oncologic dentists now, who have pursued additional training in the issues presented by cancer patients.

If you are starting treatment or have finished, it is a good idea to see a dentist for an evaluation about how your mouth is doing.


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