A third of people treated for cancer develop adverse side effects within their mouth. But while these effects can be devastating to teeth and gums, there are ways to minimize the damage.
Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation work by destroying cancer cells. Unfortunately, they may also destroy normal cells. The accumulation of this “collateral damage” ultimately affects uninvolved areas and organ systems of the body. Chemotherapy, for example, can interrupt bone marrow blood cell formation and decrease the body's ability to fight infection.
These ripple effects can eventually reach the mouth. It's not uncommon for cancer patients to develop mouth sores or see an increase in tooth decay or periodontal (gum) disease. The treatments may also inhibit saliva flow: because saliva neutralizes acid and provides other benefits that lower disease risk, dental disease is more likely to develop when the salivary flow is reduced.
The first step to minimizing these effects is to improve oral health before cancer treatment begins. An unhealthy mouth vastly increases the chances for problems during treatment. Cooperating with your cancer physicians, we should attempt to treat any diseases present as soon as possible.
During cancer treatment we should also monitor your oral health and intervene when appropriate. If at all possible, you should continue regular dental visits for cleaning and checkups, and more so if conditions warrant. We can also protect your teeth and gums with protective measures like antibacterial mouth rinses, saliva stimulation or high-potency fluoride applications for your enamel.
What's most important, though, is what you can do for yourself to care for your mouth during the treatment period. Be sure to brush daily with a soft-bristle brush and fluoride toothpaste. You can use a weak solution of one-quarter teaspoon each of salt and baking soda to a quart of warm water to rinse your mouth and soothe any sores. And be sure to drink plenty of water to reduce dry mouth.
While you're waging your battle against cancer, stay vigilant about your teeth and gums. Taking care of them will ensure that after you've won your war against this malignant foe your mouth will be healthy too.
If you would like more information on taking care of your teeth and gums during cancer treatment, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Health During Cancer Treatment.”
There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make if you want to reduce your risk of oral cancer, with quitting a tobacco habit at the top of the list. You should also moderate your alcohol consumption and practice safe sex to prevent the spread of the human papilloma virus (HPV 16) linked to oral cancer.
And there's one other area that might be ripe for change—your diet. The foods we consume can work both ways in regard to cancer: some, especially processed products with certain chemicals, increase your cancer risk; more natural foods, on the other hand, can help your body fight cancer formation.
Although how cancer forms and grows isn't fully understood, we do know some of the mechanisms involved. One major factor in cancer growth is damage to DNA, the molecule that contains all the instructions for normal cell growth. Certain chemicals called carcinogens cause much of this DNA damage.
One example of these dangerous chemicals are nitrosamines, found in substances used to preserve meats like bacon or ham. Nitrosamines also occur in beer during the brewing process, some fish and fish products, processed cheese and foods pickled with nitrite salt. It's believed long-term consumption of foods with these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer.
On the other hand, there are foods with substances called antioxidants that help our bodies resist cancer. Antioxidants protect cells from unstable molecules called free radicals that can also damage DNA. You'll find antioxidants in abundance in fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those high in fiber. Vitamins like C and E found in many natural foods also have antioxidant properties.
So, to help keep your risk of cancer and other diseases low, make sure your diet includes mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, along with plant-based fats found in nuts or olive oil. At the same time minimize your consumption of processed foods with preservatives and other chemicals, along with animal and saturated fats.
A change in eating not only reduces your cancer risk, it can also improve your overall health and well-being. You'll also find a healthy diet can be dental-friendly—it can help keep your teeth and gums disease-free and healthy.
If you would like more information on dental-friendly nutrition practices, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Diet and Prevention of Oral Cancer.”
Fans of the legendary rock band Steely Dan received some sad news a few months ago: Co-founder Walter Becker died unexpectedly at the age of 67. The cause of his death was an aggressive form of esophageal cancer. This disease, which is related to oral cancer, may not get as much attention as some others. Yet Becker's name is the latest addition to the list of well-known people whose lives it has cut short—including actor Humphrey Bogart, writer Christopher Hitchens, and TV personality Richard Dawson.
As its name implies, esophageal cancer affects the esophagus: the long, hollow tube that joins the throat to the stomach. Solid and liquid foods taken into the mouth pass through this tube on their way through the digestive system. Worldwide, it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths.
Like oral cancer, esophageal cancer generally does not produce obvious symptoms in its early stages. As a result, by the time these diseases are discovered, both types of cancer are most often in their later stages, and often prove difficult to treat successfully. Another similarity is that dentists can play an important role in oral and esophageal cancer detection.
Many people see dentists more often than any other health care professionals—at recommended twice-yearly checkups, for example. During routine examinations, we check the mouth, tongue, neck and throat for possible signs of oral cancer. These may include lumps, swellings, discolorations, and other abnormalities—which, fortunately, are most often harmless. Other symptoms, including persistent coughing or hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained weight loss, are common to both oral and esophageal cancer. Chest pain, worsening heartburn or indigestion and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can also alert us to the possibility of esophageal cancer.
Cancer may be a scary subject—but early detection and treatment can offer many people the best possible outcome. If you have questions about oral or esophageal cancer, call our office or schedule a consultation. You can learn more in the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”
Spring means different things to different people—but to baseball fans, it means just one thing: the start of another thrilling season. All 30 Major League Baseball teams begin play this month, delighting fans from Toronto to Texas and everywhere in between.
The boys of spring carry on an age-old tradition—yet baseball is also changing with the times. Cigarette smoking has been banned at most ballparks for years; smokeless tobacco is next. About half of the MLB venues now prohibit tobacco of any kind, including “snuff” and “dip.” What’s more, a recent contract agreement bars new Major League players from using smokeless tobacco anywhere.
Why all the fuss? Because tobacco isn’t safe to use in any form. People who use smokeless tobacco get just as much highly addictive nicotine as cigarette smokers. Plus, they get a mouthful of chemicals that are known to cause cancer. This puts them at higher risk for oral cancer, cancer of the esophagus, pancreatic cancer and other diseases.
A number of renowned ballplayers like Babe Ruth, Curt Flood and Bill Tuttle died of oral cancer. The death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwinn in 2014 focused attention on tobacco use in baseball, and helped lead to the ban. Gwynn was convinced that his addiction to smokeless tobacco led to his getting oral cancer.
Yet tobacco isn’t the only cause of oral cancer. In fact, the disease is becoming more common in young people who do not smoke. That’s one more reason why it’s so important for people of all ages to keep to a regular schedule of routine dental exams. These visits offer a great opportunity to detect oral cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages.
So as you watch your favorite team, take a tip from the professional athletes’ playbook. If you don’t use tobacco, don’t start. If you do, now is a good time to quit. For help and support, call an expert at 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit smokefree.gov.
If you have any questions about oral cancer, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Diet and Prevention of Oral Cancer.”
Your regular dental checkups should periodically include an important screening for oral cancer, especially as you grow older. Although oral cancers make up less than 3% of all other types, they’re among the most deadly with a 58% survival rate after five years.
Besides hereditary factors, oral cancer is strongly linked to tobacco use, alcohol abuse or diets low in fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s also a greater concern as we age: 90% of new cases of oral cancer occur in people over the age of 40, heightening the need for regular screenings. These screenings become all the more important because many early sores or lesions can mimic other conditions like canker sores — without early detection, the disease could already be in advanced stages when it’s diagnosed.
An oral screening for cancer involves both sight and touch. We’ll first look for any suspicious lesions and red or white patches in the soft tissues of the face, neck, lips and mouth. We’ll then feel for any abnormal lumps on the mouth floor, the sides of the neck and in gland locations. We’ll also examine all sides of the tongue including underneath, as well as the tissues lining the back of your throat.
If we notice anything that’s concerning we may then perform a biopsy by removing a small bit of the suspicious tissue and have it examined microscopically for the presence of cancer cells. We may also remove any lesions deemed pre-cancerous as an added precaution against possible cancer development.
The American Cancer Society recommends an oral cancer screening annually for people forty years or older and every three years for people between the ages of 20 and 39. Even better, we recommend all adults undergo a screening every year. This, along with ending tobacco use and other lifestyle and dietary changes, will greatly improve your chances of remaining free of oral cancer.
If you would like more information on detecting and treating oral cancer, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Oral Cancer.”