Campaign Targets Oral Complications Of Cancer Treatment

January 27, 1999

Most cancer patients don't know that visiting a dentist can make a difference in their cancer treatment. A new health awareness campaign from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) explains how proper oral care can prevent or minimize painful complications in the mouth that affect up to one-third of patients undergoing treatment for cancer.

Of the 1.2 million Americans diagnosed with cancer each year, approximately 400,000 will develop oral complications from their treatments. Many patients, dentists, and oncologists, however, are unaware of the right steps to take to prevent or manage these potentially serious problems.

Oral Health, Cancer Care and You: Fitting the Pieces Together informs health care providers and patients about what they can do to reduce the risk and impact of oral complications. Health writers are invited to attend a briefing and luncheon to launch the campaign on January 27, 1999, from 122 p.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

NIDCR is conducting the awareness campaign in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Nursing Research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Friends of the NIDCR. The goals of the campaign are to inform oncology and oral health professionals about the oral complications of cancer treatment, to encourage communication between oncology and oral health care providers, and to give patients the tools they need to be active participants in their cancer care.

We are excited about the opportunity this campaign presents to make a significant difference, not only in the oral health, but also in the overall health of patients undergoing treatment for cancer, noted NIDCR Director Dr. Harold Slavkin. Preventing and managing oral complications provide an excellent example of how dentistry and medicine can work together in partnership and the winner is the patient.

Oral complications can result from all forms of cancer treatment, including radiation to the head and neck, chemotherapy for any type of cancer, and bone marrow transplantation. Among the most common complications are painful, inflamed gums; mouth ulcers; bleeding; infection; and salivary gland dysfunction that leads to dry mouth and rampant tooth decay. Oral side effects may be acute, or they may last a lifetime.

Oral complications can affect cancer treatment as well. These conditions can be so debilitating that patients may tolerate only lower, less effective doses of anticancer drugs, may postpone scheduled treatments, or may discontinue treatment entirely. Oral side effects can also be the source of systemic infections that may interfere with cancer therapy and even threaten patient survival.

A dental evaluation and medically necessary oral care before cancer therapy, as well as supportive oral care during therapy, enables the patient to proceed through treatment with the threat of such problems minimized, said Gerry Barker, a dental hygienist and coordinator of the oncology dental support clinic at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Also, this supportive care helps circumvent some of the overwhelming anxiety associated with cancer treatment.

The patient is a key player in maintaining oral health during cancer treatment. Campaign materials for patients explain the importance of seeing a dentist to ensure a healthy mouth before cancer treatment begins and how to care for the mouth during and after radiation or chemotherapy to help prevent complications. Most people dont know that they can do a lot to prevent oral complications, or, if they do occur, to keep them from becoming severe, said Dr. Deborah McGuire, oncology nurse and associate professor of nursing at Emory University.

Information for oncology and oral health professionals details the different roles of each in preventing and managing oral complications. The materials also emphasize the critical importance of communication and cooperation between oncologists and dentists. Its all about communication, said Dr. Slavkin. Teamwork is essential to effective prevention and control of these painful complications from cancer treatment.
Campaign materials for health professionals and patients are available from the National Oral Health Information Clearinghouse; Attn: OCCT, 1 NOHIC Way, Bethesda, MD 20892-3500; toll-free phone: 18772161019; Internet:; e-mail:

For more information about the health writers briefing or if you wish to attend, contact Katherine Wahl at 301-402-7364.

NIH/National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

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