At this point, nearly everyone in the United States has been affected by breast cancer. Lots of people have come into contact with this frighteningly common disease through a friend or family member, and many more have experienced breast cancer themselves. Nearly 1 in every 8 American women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime.
Many of us at My Family Dentistry have loved ones who have faced breast cancer, and we are happy to recognize National Breast Cancer Awareness month this October.
Through the efforts of researchers, activists, and proactive patients over the last several decades, there has been an incredible increase in research and early diagnosis, as well as improved treatments and outcomes for patients.
As the second leading cause of death for American women, breast cancer is a concern for everyone in the medical field, including dentists. Luckily, dentists can play a role in both preventing breast cancer and in making the treatment process healthier and more comfortable for breast cancer patients.
Do you want to decrease your risk of breast cancer in the future?
Are you or a loved one preparing for or dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy?
If so, read on to learn more!
Breast cancer and oral health are connected in two primary ways:
1. Breast cancer is linked to poor oral health and gum disease
Several large-scale studies have determined that gum disease and poor oral health are linked to breast cancer. One recent study, published in the Journal of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, found that women with chronic gum disease are much more likely to develop breast cancer, a finding confirmed by several other international studies.
Poor oral health is also linked to a number of serious illnesses, such as prostate cancer, pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as low birth weight and premature birth among pregnant mothers.
But why? Research suggests that chronic inflammation and the increased presence of multiple strains of bacteria and viruses not only lead to other infections and suppress the immune response to bacterial threats, but can even contribute to abnormal cell changes, resulting in certain cancers.
If your gums are tender and red, and bleed when you brush or floss, you may have gum disease. Visit a dentist soon, especially if you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer or any serious illness. The presence of gum disease not only puts you at risk of infection, but can also impact your cancer treatments.
2. Breast cancer treatments have oral health side effects
Breast cancer treatment can also directly impact your oral health. To treat cancers, chemotherapy targets cells that multiply quickly, like cancer cells do. The cells in your mouth also regenerate very rapidly, so chemotherapy often affects them as well, causing number of unpleasant and painful side effects.
About a third of breast cancer patients develop complications affecting the mouth, including mucositis (severe oral inflammation), thrush (oral yeast infection), and bacterial infections. One of the most common is dry mouth, which can lead to difficulty swallowing, speaking, and eating. Lack of saliva also allows bacteria to multiply.
Addressing Oral Side Effects and Complications during Chemotherapy
Undergoing breast cancer treatment is challenging enough, and dealing with oral side effects impacts your quality of life. Your dentist can suggest oral rinses, lozenges, sprays, toothpastes, chewing gum, and more to address these side effects. Many of products contain xylitol to combat bacteria, like Xylimelts, lozenges that slowly dissolve and can be used day or night to treat dry mouth.
Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system, lowering your natural protection against infection, so it’s important to resolve dental problems before beginning cancer treatment. Complete any necessary dental work and have your teeth cleaned about a month before beginning chemotherapy or radiation.
Gentle oral hygiene is the key to avoiding infections in the mouth, which are particularly dangerous in combination with a suppressed immune system.
- Use a very soft toothbrush, or even a sponge brush, to avoid damaging the gums, which may be tender and inflamed from treatment
- Floss gently to avoid causing bleeding
- Only use alcohol-free rinses, and avoid rinses with saccharin. Mouthwashes with alcohol can dry out your mouth further. A mouthwash containing xylitol will help decrease the overall bacteria in your mouth
- If you wear dentures, be sure that they fit well and that you keep them very clean
Avoid dental treatments during the week after chemotherapy or when your white blood cell count is low, but be sure to have regular dental visits to spot and address issues early on during your treatment. Inflammation due to chemotherapy frequently causes bleeding of the gums, which can increase your risk of infection; report even minor bleeding to your doctor and your dentist.
Decreasing the bacteria in the mouth while protecting sensitive tissue can prevent some of the most uncomfortable side effects of breast cancer treatments. More importantly, gentle dental care can prevent serious complications like bacterial infections, which can spread to other systems.
Dealing with breast cancer treatment? We’ll do everything we can to help. Contact us today to set up an appointment.
If you’d like to receive updates from My Family Dentistry, information and tips about dental care, promotions, and more, subscribe to our email newsletter.