Supporting breast cancer patientsNews
Posted by: The Probe 19th September 2020
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK and primarily affects women. Of the 55,000 women diagnosed with this disease every year, one out of 10 are aged 50 and over. Although breast cancer survival rates continue to improve and have doubled in the past 40 years, many women still die from the disease annually.[i] For those who survive it, the long-lasting physical and mental effects of breast cancer can, understandably, be overwhelming.
Despite these risks, a large proportion of women in the UK fail to check their breasts regularly for signs and symptoms of cancer. This method of identifying the disease is vital considering around two thirds of breast cancer cases are found by women noticing unusual changes in their breasts and checking it with their doctor. Research led by Breast Cancer Now in 2018 found that just 48% of British women surveyed were frequently checking their breasts for cancer, while almost one in 10 had never checked at all.[ii]
The earlier the disease is detected, the quicker treatment can be provided and is more likely to be successful. For this reason, dental professionals should take steps where possible to educate patients on the importance of regularly checking their breasts for any abnormalities. This is particularly important given the detrimental consequences of breast cancer on general and oral health, especially for patients undergoing treatment for this debilitating illness.
The oral health impact
Breast cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can result in adverse oral side effects. These include pain, oral/pharyngeal mucosistis, xerostomia, and dental caries. Patients who are being treated for breast cancer can also develop opportunistic bacterial, fungal and viral infections as a result of chemotherapy-induced immune suppression. Furthermore, these patients are at increased risk of complications such as gingivitis and periodontitis, which can result in tooth loss.[iii]
Having a comprehensive understanding of how breast cancer therapies can impact oral health is essential. Often, dental hygienists and dental therapists will become a key dental care provider for a breast cancer patient, perhaps seeing the patient more regularly than their dentist. Of course, the entire dental team will need to co-ordinate with allied healthcare professionals in order to help manage the effects of breast cancer and its associated therapies on the patient’s oral condition.
Ideally, patients should be examined and their teeth and gums thoroughly cleaned prior to treatment for breast cancer. A detailed dental treatment plan should then be drawn up that includes oral hygiene strategies that may change throughout the stages of breast cancer therapy. Dental professionals play an important role in educating the patient about appropriate nutritional intake, early detection of any potential complications (e.g. oral lesions), and following effective at-home oral care.[iv]
In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are reminded that we have a duty of care to help patients fight back against potentially life-threatening illnesses. Thankfully, advances in patient care and treatment of breast cancer, combined with earlier detection and faster diagnosis, means the chances of patients beating the disease continues to improve. As a result, almost nine in 10 women survive following a breast cancer diagnosis for five years or more.i Being able to make a difference in a cancer patient’s life is ultimately worth every bit of support that we can provide.
[i] Breast Cancer Now. (2020) Facts and statistics 2020. Link: https://breastcancernow.org/about-us/media/facts-statistics. [Last accessed: 30.06.20].
[ii] Breast Cancer Now. (2018) Just 48% of British women regularly check their breasts for signs of cancer, despite rising incidence. Link: https://breastcancernow.org/about-us/media/press-releases/just-48-british-women-regularly-check-their-breasts-signs-cancer-despite-rising-incidence. [Last accessed: 30.06.20].
[iii] Taichman, L. S., Gomez, G. and Inglehart, M. R. (2014) Oral health-related complications of breast cancer treatment: assessing dental hygienists’ knowledge and professional practice. Journal of Dental Hygiene. 88(2): 100-113. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4075039/#:~:text=Dental%20hygienists%20often%20serve%20as,women%20undergoing%20breast%20cancer%20therapy.&text=As%20prevention%20specialists%2C%20dental%20hygienists,undergoing%20therapy%20for%20breast%20cancer. [Last accessed: 30.06.20].
[iv] Taichman, S. (2016) Oral Health Maintenance for Patients With Breast Cancer. Decisions in Dentistry. Link: https://decisionsindentistry.com/article/oral-health-maintenance-for-patients-with-breast-cancer/. [Last accessed: 30.06.20].
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