dentist going over x-rays with patient

Dental Oncology 101: The Oral Health Experts On Your Cancer Treatment Team

Oncology is the specialty of medicine that focuses on cancer treatment and management. But cancer and its treatments can also affect the mouth, which is why some dentists are specially trained as dental oncologists to help care for patients undergoing cancer treatment.

A dental oncologist is not equivalent to an oncologist for oral cancer, but rather, dental oncologists help manage the oral effects of chemotherapy and radiation. As the American Cancer Society notes, 1,762,450 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2019. As a study in Support Care Cancer explains, the majority of these cancer patients — more than 85% — will experience oral side effects, most notably dry mouth and loss of taste. Their dental oncology specialist is there to help.

What Is a Dental Oncologist?

Dental oncologists are trained alongside general dentists. The big difference is that, after four years of dental school, they then attend an additional one-year fellowship program that focuses on making prostheses for patients undergoing surgeries due to cancer and addressing the oral side effects of cancer treatments, explains the Mayo Clinic. They train with extensive classroom and clinical rigor on oral diagnosis, radiation oncology, medical oncology, speech pathology and much more in order to be fully equipped to care for patients undergoing challenging medical procedures.

How Do Oncologists and Dentists Work Together?

A cornerstone of cancer management is interprofessional care. Your dental oncologist will work alongside your team of oncologists to guide you through your treatment journey. Your dental oncologist will go over any side effects you may experience while undergoing treatment, and they will help you manage these side effects to make you more comfortable throughout the process. As the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute notes, dental oncologists can also screen patients prior to cancer treatment to minimize risks and address any dental concerns before the body undergoes therapy.

Meeting With Your Dental Oncologist

Ideally, the first meeting with the dental team will occur one month prior to cancer treatment, according to the College of Dental Hygienists of Ontario. Invasive procedures, such as extractions, should occur at least two weeks prior to radiation. The dental hygienist and oncologist will treat sources of oral infections, such as cavities or gum disease, as well as oral traumas from ill-fitting dentures or orthodontic appliances.

Any treatment needs during chemotherapy and radiation, including new prosthetics, should be discussed with the full dental and medical team and delayed, if possible. After they've completed radiation, patients should meet with their dentist every one to three months.

Oral Side Effects of Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatments can negatively impact rapidly dividing cells, many of which are located in the mouth, according to Breastcancer.org. This is why cancer therapies can lead to oral side effects. Luckily, these issues can be treated by your dental oncology team. As a review in Stomatological Disease and Science explains, some of their specific areas of focus include:

Mucositis

  • This painful inflammation of the oral tissues can be treated with topical anesthetics and oral rinses.

Xerostomia

  • Xerostomia, also known as dry mouth, can be relieved temporarily by chewing sugarless gum and drinking lots of water.

Taste Changes

  • Changes in your ability to taste may reside on their own in the weeks following treatment.

Dysphagia

Oral Thrush

  • Your dental team can help you overcome this fungal infection with prescribed medications, as an article in Informed Health notes.

Cancer is already a daunting process with a long journey of treatment and recovery. The oral side effects of cancer treatments don't have to add to your or your loved one's burden. A dental oncologist will work as part of a team of providers to aid cancer patients throughout the diagnosis, treatment and recovery process.

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