Cancer Care and Oral Health


Dr. Steven Deneka

April is Daffodil Month, a time when the Canadian Cancer Society raises awareness of the disease and seeks support to find a cure. April is also Oral Health Month in Canada. Unfortunately, cancer and oral health overlap in more ways than one. Aside from a slew of other considerations, individuals diagnosed with all types of cancer have special needs when it comes to their mouth and teeth. Additionally, oral cancer itself requires regular screening by your dentist.

Side effects from chemotherapy and radiation may include a burning sensation or swollen tongue, jaw stiffness, inflammation or ulceration, decreased ability to taste, bleeding gums and dry mouth. Since patients react differently to treatment, not everyone will experience the same symptoms.

It’s commonly recommended to schedule an appointment with your dentist at least two weeks before starting cancer treatment. Though this can be an overwhelming time with much to do, attending a dental appointment can educate patients on how to recognize and care for potential oral complications, as well as identifying and minimizing any oral infections to avoid broader systemic infection.

Some patients may require mild-tasting toothpaste or prefer rinsing with salt water if flavoured pastes or mouthwashes become irritating. Soft toothbrushes are recommended to minimize gum irritation. It’s important to continue using flouride during treatment, to protect teeth and gums, particularly if a patient experiences dry mouth. And, wherever possible, patients should continue their regular oral hygeine program.

Unfortunately, some patients experience changes in their ability to taste during treatment, which may impact eating habits. Acidic items such as citrus, vinegar, sugary and processed foods, may cause irritation. Soft, moist foods like mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs can be easier on a cancer patient’s palate. Proper nutrient and vitamin intake is important, as is avoiding alcohol and tobacco.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, approximately 4,400 Canadians would be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015. Oral cancer may strike areas such the lips, tongue, cheeks and gums. Tobacco and alcohol are considered the most important risk factors associated with this type of cancer, but other factors include the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and sun exposure, amongst others.

Early detection is essential, so symptoms including ulcers or sores that don’t heal, lumps, growths, pain or bleeding should be checked as part of your regular appointment. For any concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to ask your dentist.

Additional links for reference, Steve: