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Why should I care about my patient’s oral health, especially when I’m dealing with something important like cancer?
It is a well-established fact that oral health affects systemic health, and vice versa. Dental disease and infection does not stay confined to the mouth and can affect the patient's ability to not only tolerate but survive their cancer treatments.
If our patient does not have cancer in the head or neck region, why should we recommend that they see their dentist prior to beginning treatments?
The mouth is not only affected by direct exposure to ionizing radiation, but can also be affected by other types of cancer treatments. Chemotherapy has many potential oral side effects. There are also oral risks with the use of IV Bisphosphonates. Those undergoing Stem Cell Transplants are at very high risk of painful and dangerous changes to their mouth. As the immune system becomes compromised during treatments, any existing dental issues have the potential to cause infection and lead to sepsis. It is also vital to have a healthy and comfortable mouth to maintain nutritional needs.
Will every cancer patient need to see their dentist prior to treatments?
For some types of cancer, the luxury of time to seek dental care prior to treatments is not possible. If chemotherapy must begin immediately, there will not be the option to refer for dental care. But, in most cases, there will be some time available where the patient can receive a thorough examination and remove any active decay, infection or potential sources of trauma in their mouth before beginning treatments. It is most important prior to any radiation therapy to the head or neck region, chemotherapy, IV Bisphosphonates or a possibility of future Bone Marrow Transplantation or Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplantation.
When should we refer our patients to see their Dentist?
Refer as soon as possible after diagnosis, prior to initiating treatments. In some case, several dental visits may be required to establish an acceptable level of oral health and prevent risks of infection. The dental office will need time to complete any necessary dental treatment as to not delay the start of cancer treatments.
What if the patient has not seen a dentist in years and has no established office to refer to?
Be aware that not all dentists or their staff will be knowledgeable on the oral effects of cancer treatments. Be proactive by developing a list of local dentists that you feel confident referring to.