Many people don’t recognize the importance of dental health as it relates to head and neck cancer treatment. When a new cancer in the head or neck area is diagnosed, one of the critical team members for your cancer care is your dentist. The reason for this is to prevent dental related complications after treatment.
If radiation is a planned part of treatment, we recommend having a thorough dental examination and cleaning. If there are any teeth that may need to be pulled within the next few years, these should be removed prior to starting radiation. If severe dental disease is present, it may actually require full mouth teeth extractions. This helps to promote long term health of the jaw bones.
Once a jaw has received radiation, it is often difficult for the bone to heal. Therefore teeth extractions down the road can result in poor bone healing or bone tissue death called osteoradionecrosis. If teeth look healthy at the time of radiation, but then years later need to be pulled, complications can sometimes can be prevented if hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) treatments are given before and after dental work.
Our No. 1 priority is preventing these types of problems! This is why we recommend a dental evaluation both before treatment and close follow up (often every 3-4 months) with the dentist after treatment to try to stay on top of any new issues. Many head and neck cancer survivors struggle with dry mouth after treatment. Your saliva actually helps to rinse the teeth and helps to prevent cavities which is why we recommend such frequent dental visits. Fluoride treatments are also important. Regular dental care and fluoride help to prevent tooth decay. I have also learned recently that good clean tap water, which is obviously important for hydration, often has the added fluoride that bottled water may not.
So in addition to regular visits with your cancer provider it is also important to visit your dentist regularly after cancer treatment to keep your mouth healthy!