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Head and neck cancer, dentistry and cancer

Teeth and Aging (Part 5)

This week's topic is about the increased risk of oral cancers associated with aging. Please take a look at the previous articles on factors associated with aging teeth.

As with all aspects of life, as one ages, our bodies slowly deteriorate. A lifetime exposure to environmental factors may affect our health. Solar radiation, chemicals, foods, physical trauma, smoking and drinking can take their toll on our bodies. Humans have a magnificent defence system that help us prevent and fight diseases but these can wear down over time  which may allow bad things to show up.

Head and neck cancer treatment have special dental implications. Cancers that occur in and around the mouth include squamous cell carcinoma, Karposi's sarcoma and salivary gland tumors.

Early detection is the key to treatment. Most dentists now have devices and the ability to catch developing tumors in the early stages. So if you detect anything unusual in your mouth such as unusual lumps, unresolved sores and ulcers that do not heal, please do not put it off and visit your dentist or doctor as soon as possible! Most cancers do not hurt in the early stages.

As radiation therapies target cancer cells, they actively destroy these cells. Surrounding organs and tissues may also be damaged. In the head and neck region, saliva glands and bone structures can be affected. If this happens, salivary flow will significantly decrease leading to difficulty in swallowing and severe dry mouth. This will lead to an increased risk of getting cavities. These cavities develop very quickly and are difficult to fix. Please let your dentist know if you will be or are currently undergoing radiation treatment. He or she will have many recommendations to help you through this difficult time. High fluoride toothpastes, limiting sugar in your diet and artificial saliva products may be recommended.

Please let your dentist know if radiation therapy will be targeted at your jaw. A serious bone infection known as osteoradionecrosis can occur spontaneously or, usually, when teeth are extracted AFTER radiation therapy. The bone around where the teeth are extracted can "rot" away leaving an open spreading wound. This is extremely serious, requiring major surgery and can be very disfiguring. This is why most oncologists will recommend that a cancer patient see their dentist to complete all dental treatment BEFORE they commence radiation therapy.

Head, neck and oral cancer treatment can be a stressful time especially when one is older. Under the right care between your physician, oncologist and dentist, the situation can be made more tolerable.

If you have any questions about or suspect you may have oral cancer, please contact your dentist immediately for an assessment. If you do not have a dentist, wichDOC.com can help you find one.

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