Oral cancer is on the rise and getting a lot of attention because of its increased prevalence. It is now affecting more young people and more non-tobacco users than ever before. Here is what you need to know about oral cancer treatment.
Any type of cancer treatment always starts with testing, imaging, and biopsies to obtain an accurate diagnosis. Your oncologist must understand the cancer’s type and extent as much as possible. The oncologist (cancer specialist) works in close connection with a team of doctors to treat the cancer and give the highest possible survival rate.
Most oral cancer diagnosis begins with a biopsy. When your dentist or doctor notes an abnormal lesion in your oral cavity, a surgeon removes a portion of it and sends it to a lab for a pathologist’s evaluation. The pathologist closely scrutinizes the abnormal tissue under a microscope to determine what types of cells are growing.
If cancerous cells are present, the next step is imaging of the head and neck to find any and all areas the cancerous cells affect. You will also undergo blood tests during the diagnosis process.
Having an accurate diagnosis allows your oncologist to determine how aggressive the cancer treatment must be. The best-case scenario is when the cancer is caught early. Early diagnosis leads to more conservative treatment and a higher success rate!
Pre-Cancer Treatment Dental Work
One of the aspects of oral and other head and neck cancers that is relatively unique is the need for pre-treatment dental work. Any type of cancer that requires radiation to the head and/or neck will inevitably lead to damage to both the salivary glands and the bones in the upper and lower jaws.
Extreme Dry Mouth
Radiation of the head and neck damages the salivary glands and impairs or destroys their ability to produce saliva. Patients with this type of radiation typically experience extreme dry mouth due to this destruction of their salivary glands. Dry mouth increases the risk for all types of dental diseases. Therefore, before radiation, you should start with your mouth in its healthiest possible condition. See your dentist to address any dental treatment needs while the salivary glands are functioning well. This includes filling any cavities and cleaning up any gum disease.
Risk for Osteoradionecrosis (ORN)
Radiation also damages the bones of the upper and lower jaws in their ability to heal. This means that any dental work or oral surgery that affects the bones around the teeth has a very poor success rate and a very high risk for a condition called OsteoRadioNecrosis, or ORN. When ORN occurs, it causes areas of the bone to die. The dead bone can actually splinter or break off the underlying bone and lead to dangerous infections.
Because this is such a dangerous condition, any dental problem that could lead to the need for tooth extraction or periodontal surgery must be addressed before cancer treatment.
There are many doctors involved in oral cancer treatment.
- General Dentist – Your dentist usually identifies the abnormal lesion first, initiating the diagnosis process. Your dentist is also responsible for completing all of the necessary pre-treatment dental work discussed above. We recommend a strict preventive regimen of oral healthcare before, during, and after any oral cancer treatment, and your dentist will coordinate this, too.
- Oral Surgeon – An oral and maxillofacial surgeon will perform the necessary biopsies and surgeries associated with oral cancer treatment. An oral surgeon is also part of the reconstructive process if large areas of the teeth and jaws require removal during treatment.
- Oncologist – This cancer specialist coordinates all treatment of oral cancer after performing the necessary testing, imaging, and making an accurate diagnosis. The oncologists include the specialists performing both radiation and chemotherapy, when necessary.
- Nutritionist – Researchers and specialists are becoming more and more aware of the role of nutrition in cancer therapy. The importance of a healthy diet cannot be overstated! A nutritionist helps you understand and maintain the best nutrition throughout your treatment.
- Rehabilitation Specialists – In many cases of oral cancer, both the ability to eat and speak are negatively affected by the treatment. Rehabilitation involves seeing occupational therapists and speech therapists to re-learn these vital functions.
Severe oral cancer may require removal of parts of the upper and/or lower jawbones. This obviously changes the appearance of your face. After successful cancer treatment, most patients undergo reconstructive surgery to restore the portions of their anatomy that are missing. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon who specializes in maxillofacial prosthetics will perform this type of surgery.
Reconstruction of part of the jaw always involves therapy to help you learn how to chew, swallow, and speak with your new prosthesis.
Dental Care Throughout
Because oral cancer treatment has such a devastating effect on the mouth, it is essential that you keep your mouth as healthy as possible throughout the entire process. We know how difficult it is to add another appointment to your busy schedule during cancer treatment, and we want you to understand how important it is.
Preventive dental care not only keeps your mouth as healthy as possible. It also saves you money on expensive dental work. This is true for non-cancer patients. For cancer patients, preventive dental care can literally save part of your face!
Because of the dangerous risks of dental disease caused by extreme dry mouth and the risk of osteoradionecrosis, preventive dental care plays a huge role in your ability to protect and maintain your teeth, jaws, and facial structure. Without preventive dental care, you may develop large cavities, which lead to dental infections. Dental infections require invasive dental treatment like extractions, which carry the risk of ORN. ORN can cause the loss of jawbone and change your facial structure.
Preventive dental care is invaluable when you are undergoing treatment for oral cancer. The inconvenience of more frequent professional teeth cleanings and the extra expense of fluoride treatments and other preventive treatments are nothing compared to the inconveniences and costs you incur with severe dental disease and ORN.
More Questions about Oral Cancer Treatment?
Call your nearest Premier Dental of Ohio location today. We take oral cancer screenings to the next level with our Identafi system, and we work closely with specialists to give you the best care possible.