A patient and nurse walking down the hall with arms locked while smiling

Oral Health and Cancer: 5 Tips for Patient Care

Date: Aug 9, 2018

Author: Jamie Collins, RHD

Read on for five ways to help your patients help protect and maintain their oral health during and after cancer treatment.

When oncology patients sit in your chair, as their dental professional, you have the opportunity to empower them to take care of their oral health while undergoing cancer treatment. After their dental appointments, you can leave your patients more prepared, knowledgeable and hopeful at having gained another ally on their cancer care team. Read on for five ways to help your patients help protect and maintain their oral health during and after cancer treatment.

1. Ask Your Patients About Their Overall Health

When asking patients for updates to their medical history, many are hesitant to tell us the full story or share non-dental issues. If a patient alludes to other medical conditions, you may have to ask pointed questions. Always make sure to investigate tactfully. You can say something along the lines of, "The more I know about someone's overall health, the better dental care I can provide." Perhaps patients are guarded because they don't think their cancer diagnosis is relevant in a dental chair. Education and tact may help a patient open up and trust you.

2. Offer Your Support

Support is key when any person faces the uncertainty of oncology treatment. You can prepare cancer patients for potential oral health complications and suggest ways to help alleviate or prevent them. Mucositis, xerostomia and increased caries are common side effects you should discuss. Remember, your recommendations aren't a burden on patients. Providing them with a treatment plan before problems arise may encourage them to lean on you for support. Reassure patients that they can always call your office with any oral health questions.

3. Prevent and Treat Oral Mucositis

Oral mucositis is a common side effect of radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The discomfort of mouth sores can make eating difficult and malnourishment a risk. The Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer lists several oral therapies that are recommended or suggested for the prevention of oral mucositis, including low-level laser therapy, oral cryotherapy and benzydamine mouthwash. Recommendations and suggestions for treating oral mucositis and relieving pain are also included. Product selection depends on the type of cancer therapy.

4. Relieve Dry Mouth

Medication- or head and neck radiation-induced xerostomia (dry mouth) causes discomfort eating, speaking or swallowing, and increases a patient's risk for dental caries. Help your patients obtain relief from dry mouth by recommending an oral rinse.

5. Control Dental Caries

Rampant dental caries are a common problem for oncology patients. To help prevent dental caries, you could prescribe a high-fluoride toothpaste which is also SLS-free. Additionally, you can apply 5 percent sodium fluoride varnish two to four times per year for patients at risk for caries.

Remember that home care can be difficult during cancer treatment. Something as small as keeping up with their daily brushing and flossing can be a challenge for patients facing a tough prognosis, so show your support with regular check-ins and a caring, rather than a scolding tone if they fall behind in their daily oral care routine. You could also recommend they use an extra soft toothbrush, which they may find more comfortable.

Being a caring and knowledgeable partner and providing support in even the smallest ways can increase your patients' comfort and confidence. Send a card out of the blue or call them periodically to let them know the whole office sends their well wishes. Alleviating potential oral health and cancer side effects and providing support in a time of uncertainty will have a lasting impact on the lives of your patients and their families.