October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. But for 1 in 8 women in the U.S., breast cancer is a year-round battle. With those odds, most of us know someone who has or will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime in their lives. We have mothers, sisters, friends and neighbors who fight the disease everyday. Fortunately, dentistry can play a role in both reducing the occurrence of breast cancer and in making the treatment process more comfortable.
Connecting the dots
According to a study in the International Journal of Cancer Research, women with poor oral health or gum disease are 11 times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Researchers believe the increased risk is in part due to inflammation caused by gum disease, which allows bacteria and viruses to enter the blood stream, causing the body to be more vulnerable to other threats. As the body works hard to fight off the invaders, all that work can suppress the body’s immune response. It can also contribute to abnormal cell changes, resulting in certain cancers, including breast cancer.
Inflamed, red and soar gums should never be ignored. These are symptoms of gum disease. The dental community recommends that everyone should see a dentist for regular checkups at least every three months to prevent gum disease, especially with the presence of cancer.
Resolve dental issues before cancer treatment
Dealing with cancer is stressful enough, but pre-existing or untreated gum disease further complicates the issue when inflammation and infection are present. Because some drugs suppress white blood cells, which normally protect against infection, deep cleanings and other invasive procedures should be done in advance of cancer treatments. While undergoing treatment, gentle oral hygiene is important to avoid further infection, which is particularly dangerous with a suppressed immune system. So it’s important to resolve dental problems before cancer treatment begins. In many cases, oncologists and dentists often work as a team to develop a treatment plan.
Cancer treatment can impact oral health
While dental health can impact cancer treatment plans, the treatments themselves can also cause oral health issues. The IJCR study showed that more than one-third of people being treated for breast cancer develop complications that affect the mouth. Chemotherapy and radiation target cells that multiply quickly. But cells in the mouth also regenerate quickly, so these aggressive treatments often zap healthy cells, as well, causing unpleasant and painful side effects. Mucositis (severe oral inflammation), thrush (oral yeast infection), and bacterial infections often emerge during cancer treatments. And one of the most common is dry mouth, which allows for bacteria to grow and difficulty swallowing, speaking, and eating. Sometimes treatments can cause aching and burning pain that mimics a toothache. Even if minor, all these issues should be reported to the physician and a dental appointment scheduled.
In general, consistently practicing good oral hygiene can help to limit side effects caused by breast cancer treatment, and regular dental check-ups keep gum disease at bay. With all of the research out there linking oral health to overall health, it’s important to be proactive with dental health, particularly if family history indicates a higher risk for cancer.