Nearly 2 million people in the U.S. will receive a cancer diagnosis before the end of 2022, notes a study published by the American Cancer Society. And to make matters worse, many of those diagnosed will simultaneously find themselves struggling with periodontal disease, a bacterial infection that attacks the gums and surrounding tissues that support teeth. As of the writing of this article, an estimated 47% of adults aged 30 and older and 70% of adults aged 65 and older, respectively, have periodontal disease. While it is natural for someone with cancer to focus less on taking care of their teeth, doing so can lead to significant dental problems that can further compromise their overall health, especially if they’re undergoing cancer treatments. Such is the assertion of Dr. Bruce Vafa, a well-regarded Beverly Hills dentist who believes strongly that oral and physical health are interconnected.
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How Cancer Treatments Impact Periodontal Health
If you have cancer and don’t already have periodontal disease, the treatments you undergo to combat cancer can bring about its development. Likewise, if you do have periodontal disease, cancer treatments, even though they can potentially save your life, can make it worse. And all of this is substantiated by several studies, one of which comes from the National Cancer Institute, which revealed chemotherapy and radiation used to treat most cancers can sometimes damage salivary glands in the oral cavity.
When this happens, the mouth gets exceedingly dry, and before long, oral health problems begin to arise. In essence, the disruption of saliva flow adversely alters the delicate balance of healthy bacteria in the mouth, which makes the mouth not only dry but also a breeding ground for infections, sores, cavities, tooth decay, periodontal disease, and much more. According to Beverly Hills Dentist Dr. Vafa and other esteemed holistic dentist in Beverly Hills, such oral health complications are most common among individuals diagnosed with head and neck cancers. Of course, this does not mean individuals diagnosed with these or other cancers should forgo needed dental care, but they should inform their dentists of their diagnosis so that they can receive treatments that will work best for them.
A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Cancer Treatments and Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease and oral health problems can vary in complexity and severity from one person to the next. Some people encounter only temporary complications, and others develop permanent ones. For example, some individuals might only suffer from tooth discoloration and the odd cavity. Others are not so fortunate in that they develop periodontal disease, which sometimes leads to tooth loss.
Generally speaking, chemotherapy and radiation do an excellent job of slowing down or stopping the growth of fast-growing cancer cells and ultimately sending the disease into remission. While this helps combat cancer, it can do a number on the oral cavity. Because cells in the tissue that make up the oral cavity grow fast naturally, chemotherapy and radiation also target and tend to wreak havoc on those cells. Along with chronic dry mouth, cavities, tooth decay, and periodontal disease, these cancer treatments can cause the following:
- Change in taste
- Oral mucositis
- Tooth discoloration
Oral health complications resulting from chemotherapy and radiation can stem from these treatments directly, or they can be side effects associated with those treatments. Either way, they make the usual struggles of living with cancer far worse. To appreciate the extent to which these two cancer treatments wreak havoc on the oral cavity, we need to look at them individually.
Radiation therapy – This cancer treatment is responsible for damaging oral tissue, namely salivary glands and the bones that make up the jaw and support teeth. Generally speaking, unless treated quickly, the damage that gets done to the oral cavity because of radiation therapy is irreversible.
Chemotherapy – This cancer treatment is responsible for weakening the immune system by decreasing the number of white blood cells in the body. When this happens, the body is less capable of fighting off infections that form in the oral cavity. As a result, most individuals develop cavities, sores, early-stage gum disease, and the like. As bad as these problems might be, there is some good news insofar as they are not permanent. Generally, once an individual stops undergoing chemotherapy, these oral health problems will improve and go away altogether.
How Periodontal Disease Destroys the Oral Cavity and Causes Tooth Loss
Since periodontal disease is the worst of the many oral health complications that can stem from traditional cancer treatments, let’s take a moment to explore how it impacts the oral cavity when someone develops it. Long before someone is diagnosed with periodontal disease, they first get gingivitis, an oral health problem characterized by swollen, red gums that easily bleed. If gingivitis goes untreated or is made worse by repeated cancer treatments, it leads to periodontal disease. When someone develops this more advanced form of gum disease, their gums gradually start to pull away from their teeth, allowing bacteria, food debris, tartar, and plaque to get trapped between the teeth and gums, which leads to bone and, eventually, tooth loss. Before finally losing their teeth, most people who have the misfortune of developing periodontal disease report the following symptoms:
- Bright red or swollen gums
- Changes in how their teeth fit together when they bite or chew food
- Chronic bad breath
- Loose teeth
- Pain when chewing
- Sensitive teeth
- Tender or bleeding gums
Holistic Dentists in Beverly Hills Discuss Treatment Protocols for Cancer Patients
According to the National Institutes of Health and most holistic dentist in Beverly Hills, individuals diagnosed with head, neck, and other cancers receive a different level of care from their dentists than those who do not. And this is indeed the case when it comes to treating and preventing the onset of periodontal disease. While the approach might vary slightly from dentist to dentist, periodontal therapy to prevent or treat periodontal disease entails the debridement of bacteria and biofilm from tooth surfaces via scaling and root planing techniques. Because cancer patients are usually immune compromised, these advanced cleanings are done under antibiotic cover and usually three days before patients are due to start or resume chemotherapy treatments. Also, because chemotherapy lowers the white blood cell count in the body, most dentists order complete and differential blood counts to ensure patients are healthy enough to undergo dental procedures necessary to prevent or treat periodontal disease. The same also applies to other dental treatments.
While it is probably the last thing you want to do, you should be seen by a dentist regularly if you’re undergoing cancer treatments. And this is because those treatments, while very much necessary, can wreak havoc on the oral cavity as they work to destroy fast-growing cancer cells. Bearing all that in mind, if you have cancer, and have not been to a dentist since your diagnosis, consider scheduling an appointment with Dr. Bruce Vafa today.