If you are undergoing radiation therapy to treat cancer, you and your doctor may have discussed the different problems that may occur due to treatment. For instance, problems in the oral area (teeth, gums, and throat) are common with radiation therapy to nearby areas. While your cancer care team will manage any oral health problems that may occur from treatment, there are also actions you can take.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Radiation treats cancer by killing these out-of-control cells. However, since normal cells also divide (but do so in a regulated manner), they too are killed. This can prevent tissues in the oral area from repairing themselves during normal wear and tear.
Cancer treatment can also disturb the balance of good and bad bacteria in the mouth, as well as affect the lining and saliva. This can eventually lead to infection, sores, and tooth decay. Other oral side effects that may occur are:
Some of these problems, like mouth sores, will go away once treatment stops, but others may last months or years.
Think about your overall health before treatment. The healthier you are, the better able your body will be to prevent problems and fight potential side effects. Being healthy includes following a well-balanced diet. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about a diet plan that is right for you.
Also, if you are having radiation therapy to your head or neck, see a dentist 2 weeks beforehand. The dentist will take care of any existing oral health problems you may have to ensure that you are as healthy as possible before treatment.
Once treatment begins, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat any problems that occur. In addition to medications, here are other ways to maintain a healthy mouth during treatment:
Your doctor or dietitian may suggest foods that are high in calories and protein so that you can maintain a healthy weight during treatment.
You may experience stiffness in your jaw. If so, your doctor may help relieve this with special devices and medications. There are also some exercises that you can do at home, such as the following:
If you experience pain, you and your doctor will work together to find ways to help relieve it. Your doctor may prescribe medications, as well as other therapies like:
Tell your doctor anytime you:
Undergoing cancer treatment can be stressful and tiring. But proper self-care and support from your cancer care team will help you to cope successfully as you battle the disease.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Oral complications of chemotherapy and head/neck radiation (PDQ). National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/mouth-throat/oral-complications-pdq. Updated December 16, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Radiation therapy side effects and ways to manage them. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiation-therapy-and-you. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Radiation therapy to the head and neck. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/radiation/understandingradiationtherapyaguideforpatientsandfamilies/understanding-radiation-therapy-radiation-to-head-and-neck. Updated February 10, 2017. Accessed June 29, 2017.
Last reviewed June 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board - Michael Woods, MD, FAAP