You hear the dreaded word “cancer”. Not only does the worst case scenario flash through your mind, but to make it even more frightening, it’s in your mouth. So many questions flood your mind at this announcement. One of the most important questions is probably, what is my dentist going to do to help me?
Your dental team, whether it be just your general dentist or a specialist, is trained to be the first line of defense in the detection and treatment of oral cancer. There are many factors within your mouth that can give the false indication of cancer. It is your dentist’s responsibility to know the difference and know how to treat it.
Treatment for oral cancer is best done from a multidisciplinary approach. This means surgeons, oncologists, dentists and rehabilitative and restorative specialists. The treatment for oral cancer is similar to the treatment for cancer in other areas of the body. This involves chemotherapy, radiation and usually surgery.
The treatment for the actual cancer will usually involve surgery and radiation therapy. The surgical procedure will remove the tumor from your mouth or throat. This is the most common treatment. On occasion, the surgeon will remove lymph nodes if they feel it is necessary for your treatment. Since the cancer can affect other areas of your mouth, it is possible that other tissues in the mouth and neck will be removed as well, either for testing or as a preventative measure.
No matter what is being surgical removed, it is best to ask your doctor to explain what has been done and why, as well as what he expects to see in the results of the testing of the tissue.
Radiation is also a standard treatment for cancer, even in the mouth or throat. Radiation is often used for smaller tumors or for patients who are unable to undergo the surgical procedure for other medical reasons. As with cancer in other locations of the body, radiation therapy is used to kill the cancerous cells and is expected to shrink the tumors. It is also often used after surgery to kill any cells that may remain after the surgery.
You should discuss the plan with all the doctors involved. These doctors make up your dental team, even if they are not specifically dentists. You should meet with each doctor who will be involved in your care and discuss your questions and concerns with them. It is important for you to be comfortable with the plan, as ultimately, you are the one who will be undergoing the procedures.
In your discussions, be sure to cover the side effects of each treatment used, how long you may be expected to stay in the hospital, and if they feel one cycle of the radiation therapy will be enough to kill the cancerous cells. You should also ask about changes that may affect other areas of your body, such as changes to your skin and thyroid. Since this will affect your mouth, you should also ask about changes to your sense of smell and taste, as well as your voice.
You should be open with your dentist regarding any changes to your mouth and any concerns you may have. If you do not speak with them regarding all your questions, or just assume because you feel pain in the same area that you just had work in, that it must be a cavity, you could be overlooking or ignoring a very important symptom that might indicate cancer to your dentist. Your dentist is trained to answer your questions and concerns and will take the time you need to answer all of them.