Breast Cancer Awareness Month is about more than a sense of understanding; it's just as important to focus on treatment. Chemo and radiation therapy are modern-day miracles, but even as these treatments save lives, they can take their toll on the patient. Xerostomia, more commonly known as "dry mouth," may sound relatively mild, but it can have negative effects on a patient's oral health. Fortunately, there are options for prevention and care.
How Likely Is Dry Mouth?
In most cases, radiation therapy shouldn't affect the oral cavity as long as adequate shielding is provided to prevent any oral complications. Nonetheless, the likelihood of a patient suffering from dry mouth – and how severe the case may be – depends on the patient's dental health prior to treatment. A patient with periodontal issues or significant decay, for example, is more likely to have problems afterwards. And the more dentally disadvantaged they are – with regards to both their gums and tooth decay – the more likely problems such as dry mouth are after treatment begins.
Dry mouth, or "acute xerostomia", can occur during or directly following therapy. According to Cancer Research UK, after treatment it can take time for symptoms to improve. It can also set in months or years later, and when it does, the symptoms tend to be longer term, as explained by Macmillan. This is "late xerostomia." And if you've received stem cells or marrow to which your body doesn't respond well, according to the NHS, you may contract graft-versus-host disease. The NHS also notes that this can cause dry mouth if the chemotherapy itself does not.
What Makes It Worse?
Dry mouth can also be exacerbated by other medications that cause xerostomia in the process of fighting the cancer. The chemotherapy can make saliva thicker, lessening its cleansing effect and giving you a familiar feeling of dryness in the mouth. There are many medications that cause dry mouth on their own, and that certainly can be compounded when you initially start breast cancer treatment.
What You Should Do First
Be sure to see your dentist prior to any chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and let them know what's going on. For breast cancer, it is extremely important to undergo a dental clearance exam by a dentist; this should include having your teeth thoroughly cleaned for plaque and tartar. In addition, dental treatment is usually limited for significant periods of time after treatment, limiting what treatment you can undergo during and after chemotherapy. Any advanced dental problems should therefore be taken care of prior to cancer treatment.
You can ultimately help to relieve the symptoms of xerostomia at home by practising good oral hygiene, which includes flossing and brushing to reduce complications from dry mouth.
With a proper dental screening prior to cancer treatment, good oral hygiene practices, and a close watch on the preventative medications listed above, rest assured you can mitigate these oral side-effects of breast cancer treatment – allowing you to maintain optimum oral health well after this ordeal passes.