Managing Wellness

Dental Care During Chemotherapy: A Survivor’s Story

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Posted by October 25, 2016

If you are currently undergoing cancer treatment or you are newly diagnosed, this article is for you.

On the eve of my 33rd birthday, the one “gift” I never expected to receive was what felt like a frozen-pea-sized lump in my right breast. I was prepared to start a new year of my life, but nothing could have prepared me for dealing with breast cancer and all the challenges that come along with the treatment—including managing dental care during chemotherapy.

Breast Cancer: A New Chapter in My Life Story

This particular chapter starts with my beautiful friend, Janel, who lost her battle with breast cancer at the young age of 32. During her brave battle, she often advocated for breast self-exams and encouraged women young and old to regularly check for abnormalities. She is the reason I educated myself on what a self-exam entailed. In her efforts to educate those she touched, Janel very well might have saved my life.

When I found the lump, my intuition told me something wasn’t right. I acted fast to have it checked out and was grateful to have a team of doctors that pushed me through the system to quickly get the tests I needed. My fears were confirmed on September 16, 2015, when I was diagnosed with an aggressive triple positive, stage 1A, grade 3 IDC (invasive ductal carcinoma). And so began my journey to wellness.

What I Learned About Dental Care During Chemotherapy

Cancer can happen to anyone, and the side effects of treatment don’t discriminate as I well know. A lifelong athlete focused on eating a healthy diet, I consider myself to be a pretty health-conscious person. And even as plugged in as I am as an employee for a dental insurance company focused on improving the dental health of consumers, I still fell short of what was needed for my own dental care during chemotherapy. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it now but, in my experience, it was easy to forget about the health of my mouth while trying to manage the many side effects of chemo. It was all a bit overwhelming when I was going through it!

My oncology team was helpful in providing high-level information on managing oral side effects, such as dry mouth and mouth sores, but they did not indulge in details. I was unaware that the pH of my mouth would change entirely, or that I needed to take extra steps to fight cavities and maintain good dental health through chemotherapy. I had no idea that I would have to go above and beyond my normal routine in taking care of my mouth through treatment. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t try to take care of my mouth, because I did. It wasn’t easy some days but I did my best to stick to my regular routine of brushing and flossing but, as it turned out, that wasn’t enough.

In my 33 years, I’ve never had a single cavity and always practiced excellent dental hygiene, yet I still experienced extreme teeth sensitivity post-chemo—so bad that I thought there must have been a cracked tooth in my mouth—and I came out of treatment with two cavities for the first time in my life. I’m learning now that I could have taken extra measures as easy as using fluoride toothpaste (I had removed fluoride from my diet) and rinsing my mouth with water throughout the day to avoid such complications.

Be Your Own Health Advocate

In addition to extra self-care steps you can take to help manage or prevent dental issues through cancer treatment, it’s also important to bridge the gap between your oncologist and your dentist. In my experience, I’ve found that oncologists need more information about how cancer treatments affect their patients’ dental health. There’s often a disconnect between providers, so be sure to bridge the gap and advocate that they work together to treat your holistic health. Reach out to your dentist to ensure they have the needed information and try to take care of any pressing oral issues before starting treatment.

And one more thing: Don’t be afraid to ask questions! I honestly thought that I had all the necessary information about caring for my dental health during chemo, but I wish I had asked more questions and done the extra research before starting my treatment plan. I want to share my story so that others can be better prepared than I was—and come out healthier in the end. With that said, be sure to check out the oral health and breast cancer resources my team and I created:

  • Mouth care tips for preventing or managing the oral health-related issues that patients may experience as a result of cancer treatment
  • A simple discussion guide for patients to use when talking to their dentists before and during cancer treatment

Here’s to healthier days ahead.

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