There’s hope when cancer treatment leaves patients with a bad taste—and pain—in their mouths.
Story: Dr. Alisa Cooper
Finding out you have cancer is devastating. Fighting that cancer is worse. Patients know the misery of countless doctor appointments, fatigue, and the nausea of chemotherapy. What could be worse? Treatment-induced oral mucositis. These are mouth sores that make chewing and swallowing so painful that patients often are unable to maintain adequate nutrition and hydration.
The skin that lines the oral cavity, or oral mucosa, comprises cells that divide and are replaced quickly, making it a resilient and sensitive barrier. While it can withstand normal forces like chewing, swallowing, and the onset of digestion, it often cannot endure the added burden of chemotherapy and radiation. Many treatments target rapidly dividing cells regardless of whether they are healthy or cancerous. No wonder cancer treatments often ravage the mouth.
Nearly 40 percent of chemotherapy and 95 percent of radiotherapy patients develop oral mucositis according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. It often begins in the first week of treatment and can last several weeks after it ends. The sores range from mild to severe and appear as red patches or pus-filled ulcers, making it tortuous to eat and swallow, interrupting treatment, and jeopardizing the outcome. Mild cases may cause dry mouth and oral malodor.
There are presently no medications that prevent oral mucositis. Being vigilant with oral care is key. What works? Brushing often with a soft-bristle toothbrush and low-abrasive toothpaste, flossing gently after meals, and using an oral rinse after and in-between meals. Yet, more can be done. Becky, a cancer survivor, emphasizes, “Brushing and flossing are not enough! You’ve got to scrape your tongue several times a day and use a Hydro Floss oral irrigator, a great little device that breaks up the biofilms where bad bacteria hide.”
Cancer patients should use oral rinses that don’t contain alcohol or irritating chemicals.
“Using the wrong mouthwash is like spraying lighter fuel on a fire,” adds Frank, a cancer survivor treated for a deep neck tumor. “With the right rinse, you can get some relief from the inflammation caused by radiation damage. Just make your mantra: swish, rinse, gargle, spit.”
A mouth rinse gaining popularity within the cancer community is CloSYS unflavored mouth rinse. Known for conquering bad breath and alleviating dry mouth, its reputation for easing oral mucositis is expanding. Dentists, hygienists, and oncology nurses are recommending it, and grateful patients are sharing their personal experiences with others fighting the good fight.
A 58-year-old breast cancer patient developed mouth sores five days after beginning treatment.
“I endured the pain of eating only to maintain my stamina,” she recalls. “My oncology nurse told me about CloSYS, and I began brushing my teeth three to four times a day and rinsing between brushings. Things got better as the weeks went by, and I eventually could chew and swallow without pain. My mood improved and so did my determination to beat this thing.”
A 46-year-old with Hodgkin’s lymphoma developed oral mucositis within four days of her first chemotherapy treatment.
“I could not eat anything dry, hard, crunchy, salty, or spicy. And every time the sores began to heal, it was time for another treatment and they would flare up again,” she says.
Along with the sores, she developed dry mouth and bad breath. Her dentist recommended CloSYS unflavored mouth rinse. She explains, “Right away, my mouth felt moist, and within three days my breath was fresher.” Although she still developed sores after treatments, they were milder and healed up quickly. “It made my cancer journey bearable.”
A 65-year-old dental hygienist with breast cancer began using CloSYS prophylactically the first week of treatment. “I only had a few sores on my palate and basically ate anything I wanted. Besides brushing and rinsing, I added the CloSYS rinse to my Waterpik.” Routinely recommending CloSYS to her own patients, she laments that oncologists are largely unaware of it. “They need to go beyond recommending saltwater and sucking on ice chips.”
The oral mucositis suffered by a 58-year-old with ovarian cancer was so severe that her treatments had to be spaced farther apart than her oncologist initially recommended. She had sores all over her gums, putting several teeth in jeopardy. Luckily, her dental hygienist recommended the products above, and, within three months, the gingivitis subsided.
“Actually,” the patient recalls, “my gums stopped bleeding within the first month.” She adds, “I had to brush my teeth every two hours, but that kept the chemo taste away long enough to eat and drink, and I didn’t lose any teeth. I am grateful for that.”
Oral mucositis, a prevalent and devastating side effect of chemotherapy and radiation, compromises physical and emotional well-being. Patients consistently stress the importance of extreme oral hygiene in sustaining the mouth as a lifeline for fighting cancer. Many also agree that products like this have been their salvation. They hope oncologists soon catch on.
About the writer →Dr. Alisa Cooper is a chiropractor, certified clinical nutritionist, and certified EFT practitioner with more than 25 years of experience helping others achieve and maintain optimal health and well-being. She creates health presentations, books, blogs, and articles. Visit liveandbewell.com.