During the month of October, Coast Dental shows our support for those affected by breast cancer. We raise awareness of the disease by wearing pink, participating in runs and walks, volunteering, and donating to breast cancer charities. We’re able to better empathize with family and friends by understanding some of the life changes they experience after a breast cancer diagnosis.
Fatigue, hair loss, nausea, and vomiting commonly come to mind when you think of breast cancer treatment. But did you know that certain treatments for breast cancer can also take a toll on your oral health? Compromised oral health and mouth pain leads to loss of appetite and sometimes inability to eat.
Let’s discuss how breast cancer treatment affects your oral health and some ways you can manage the side effects.
Types of Breast Cancer Treatment
There are several treatment options for breast cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Speak to your team of physicians about your specific treatment plan. It’s important to be aware of the pros, cons, and possible side effects of each treatment option.
Let’s take a look at two common breast cancer treatments — chemotherapy and radiation therapy — and how they each impact your oral health.
What is Chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses potent drugs to destroy cancer cells. It’s a systemic treatment, meaning that the drugs travel through your entire body, attacking both cancer cells and healthy cells. Because of the destruction of healthy cells, chemotherapy can cause many adverse side effects.
What is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that kills cancer cells by using high doses of radiation. While this type of treatment is ideally localized to a specific area, healthy cells can also be damaged, which, like chemotherapy, can cause life-altering side effects.
Oral Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment
The oral side effects of chemotherapy and radiation can make it difficult and sometimes painful to eat, taste, and swallow, leading to poor nutrition, vitamin deficiency, and weight loss. Let’s take a closer look at some of the oral changes often seen during chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Dry mouth, or xerostomia, is a condition that causes reduced or thickened saliva. Saliva is a natural lubricant that aids in chewing, speaking, swallowing, and rinsing away food particles. It also balances destructive acids in the mouth that can cause tooth decay. You’re more susceptible to mouth sores and oral infections when your saliva is diminished.
Mouth sores, or oral mucositis, during breast cancer treatment can occur on your gums, cheeks, tongue, lips, and esophagus (the tube that goes from your throat to your stomach). The sores sometimes burn and are often painful, causing eating difficulties. Open mouth sores also increase your risk for infection.
The combination of dry mouth, mouth sores, and a weakened immune system during breast cancer treatment is the perfect environment for the organisms that cause viral, bacterial, and fungal infections in and around your mouth. For example, oral thrush is a yeast infection of the mouth that is a common side effect during cancer treatment.
The foods you once enjoyed may taste different during breast cancer treatment. You may even experience a metallic taste in your mouth. These changes may decrease your appetite during a time when proper nutrition is so important.
Prevention and Management
It’s important for you to visit your dentist about one month before you start chemotherapy or radiation. Fixing issues like decayed teeth, gum disease, and ill-fitting dentures can help prevent dental complications and mouth infections during cancer treatment. Delayed dental treatment could result in increased occurrence and severity of oral side effects.
It’s also important to maintain good oral hygiene during cancer treatment. Talk to your dentist about attending your routine six-month checkup and cleaning appointments. Your dentist will consult with your oncologist about whether or not to proceed with cleanings and other dental care you may need during cancer treatment.
Here are some tips to practice good oral hygiene at home:
Brush twice a day and after meals using a soft or extra soft toothbrush
If your mouth is too sore to brush, use a wet cloth or sponge to clean your mouth
Change your toothbrush every 3 months
Floss daily, very gently, unless your mouth is too sore
Use a non-whitening fluoride toothpaste made for sensitivity
If you wear dentures, clean them after every meal and remove them at night
Use an alcohol-free mouthwash or a mouthwash specially formulated for dry mouth
Avoid smoking and alcohol
Despite doing your best to maintain good oral hygiene, you may still develop mouth sores and irritation. Here are some tips for managing mouth pain during breast cancer treatment:
Avoid salty, acidic, and spicy foods
Drink plenty of water
Avoid tough, hard, and crunchy foods
Suck on ice chips
Cut food into small pieces and chew slowly
Eat foods that are bland, cool, soft, and easy to chew
Moisturize your lips with a mild lip balm
Avoid smoking and alcohol
Talk to your doctor or dentist about prescription medications that help with mouth sores
A breast cancer diagnosis immediately changes your life. Along with physical changes, you may experience anxiety, depression, and fear. You can face these challenges with the help of your support system. Being well informed and prepared for what lies ahead may also ease some of your fears.
It’s important to educate yourself on your treatment options. Your team of healthcare professionals can help you navigate the risks, benefits, and side effects. Remember that your oral health directly impacts your overall health, so make sure to visit your dentist before, during, and after breast cancer treatment.
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written by: Christa Cooley, DDS
reviewed by: Devin Gilliam, Debbie Nicholson