Mouth and Dental Issues

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

DECEMBER 06, 2017

Well, this is a pretty discouraging piece of information. This article from CancerNet describes the many kinds of trouble that cancer treatment can cause for our mouths and our teeth. I would put this on par with the unpleasant fact that many women gain weight through breast cancer treatment. How can it be fair that chemotherapy can cause hair loss and fatigue and general malaise and comes with a lot of anxiety and sadness and lays an extra five or ten pounds on many women? In the same vein, how can it be fair that chemotherapy can result in unpleasant, uncomfortable/painful, expensive dental issues?

I was aware of the general advice that patients have a complete dental check up and routine cleaning before starting chemotherapy. This is partly common sense to start off as healthy and sturdy as possible, but it also reflects the reality that it is not wise to have dental treatments at a time when one's blood counts are low. If someone needs dental care during chemotherapy, it is always scheduled with this in mind.

And an unrelated factoid that I have not understood since I first heard it twenty years ago: Did you know that more women leave their partners for a dentist than for people of anyone other profession? Figure that one out and then let me know.

Without further complaining, here is the start and a link to read more:

Did You Know that Cancer Treatment Can Affect Your Mouth?

Stephen T. Sonis, DMD, DMSc, is a professor of oral medicine at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and a senior surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He has had a longstanding interest in research, teaching, and management of oral complications that arise from cancer treatment.

Did you know that many cancer treatments can cause side effects in the mouth? The mouth is 1 of the most complex parts of the body, with many types of cells and tissues. Here are some of the ways in which the mouth is unique:

  • It’s the only place where hard tissue—the teeth—touches the outside world.
  • Specialized tissue, nerves, and muscles help you eat, taste, swallow,
    and speak.
  • It’s the only place in the body where joints have both ball and socket 
    and sliding movements. These are the spots where the jawbones connect with the skull.
  • It has glands that produce saliva for lubrication.

Some types of cancer treatment interfere with these functions. This includes chemotherapy, radiation
therapy to the head or neck, and some forms of targeted therapy. Some of the side effects that can affect
the mouth are described below.

Surgery is a part of the treatment plan for some cancers of the head and neck. Sometimes, surgery will
affect the mouth and its associated structures, like the salivary glands. If you are having surgery, it’s a good
idea to discuss possible oral side effects with your health care team.

Read more if you dare:

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