4 things to consider when dealing with dental patients who are being treated for breast cancer

October 24, 2013

Knowing that many of your dental patients have fought or are fighting breast cancer, here are four things every dentist and dental team member should know.

Knowing that many of your dental patients have fought or are fighting breast cancer, here are four things every dentist and dental team member should know.

It’s October and you no doubt have seen pink everywhere during this month as survivors and supporters remind us of the many Americans who are battling breast cancer. My own grandmother battled breast cancer until her final breath; so to honor her and all of those fighting this horrible disease, I wear a pink band around my left wrist everyday.

1. Low white cell count could cause problems. White cells prevent against infection. Doing an invasive procedure when the white cells are low could lead to problems with infection and other complications.

“During chemotherapy, a patient’s platelet count and white cell count is very low. I have seen patients who have undergone dental procedures during chemo experience bleeding and bruising,” said Dr. Sudha Teerdhala, an oncologist from Texas Oncology Professionals of North Texas. “Patients should tell their dental professionals that they are on chemo, and dental professionals should be asking their patients before every visit.”

2. Communication is key. As mentioned above, Dr. Teerdhala believes there should be plenty of discussion between the dental team and patient. However, it shouldn’t just stop there.?“I always encourage communication between the dentist and the oncologist. Many problems could be avoided with a simple phone call,” she said. There aren’t many times when a dental procedure is an emergency, so it might be best to postpone the procedure until after the chemo. If they’re coming in for their six-month cleaning, that’s not a big deal. If it’s anything more invasive than that, there needs to be communication between the doctor and dentist.”

“Dentists must rise to the call and begin to feel more comfortable in dealing with late effects complications as well as communication between them and the oncologists,” said Norberto Diaz, public relationship manager for Dental Oncology Professionals. “This demographic is getting their dental health needs met closer to home (where cancer care is now offered). If we, as dental professionals, don't match the level of auxiliary services currently offered at major cancer centers, not only do we miss the opportunity to help these patients, we also miss a chance to shift the paradigm of what it means to be in the emerging role of the dental office within the medical community.”

3. Be on the lookout for mucositis. An inflammation of the mouth, mucositis can affect everything from swallowing to speech to the ability to sleep. The Oral Cancer Foundation calls oral mucositis, “probably the most common, debilitating complication of cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy and radiation.” Right now, there is little that can be done to prevent the onset of mucositis, so dentists and dental team members will need to be aware of the condition and communicate ahead of time with the patient to see if mucositis is occurring before he or she visits the practice. Remember, no single way of battling mucositis has worked with every patient.

4. Remind your patients about good oral hygiene during breast cancer treatment. While dental patients should also be reminded to brush and floss properly, it’s even more important during breast cancer treatment. With white blood count low, the importance of keeping infection to a minimum in all parts of the body (including gums) during this time is critical.