Oral Health Amidst Cancer Treatment

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blab 2A combination of experiences professionally and personally as a caregiver for loved ones with cancer, made  Jill Meyer-Lippert acutely aware of the importance of dental health during cancer treatment.  Jill will be joining us on Blab Wednesday June 1 with Dennis Abbott, DDS of Dental Oncology, Garland, Texas.  Here is the transcript of a conversation with her earlier this year.

Jill, can you tell us about your role as caregiver to your mother who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992?

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time that I got my first job in the dental field as an assistant and receptionist. I was also scheduled to begin classes within weeks to earn my degree in dental hygiene. Through 7 months of chemotherapy, my mom suffered terribly with oral side effects, including severe dry mouth and mouth sores. She asked her oncology team what she could do to find relief and was told, “Nothing.” They could only try to mask the pain. She was given no guidance on ways to prevent or manage her suffering and that ignited a passion within me to learn as much as I could about this subject. Throughout my career in dentistry, I sadly found this to be a pattern for many people; their oral health was being dismissed as a part of their cancer journey. They were not receiving the information they needed to protect their mouth and prevent both short-term and long-term damage.

Your own oral care journey started as a volunteer program handing out essential oral care information and products to those undergoing cancer treatments. Can you tell us about the transformation from that to your company Side Effect Support LLC?

I started a volunteer program at a local oncology department after losing my dad to Hodgkin’s Disease. Every patient who was starting chemotherapy or radiation to the head and neck received a “goody bag” that contained basic information about a few oral side effects of treatments, such as dry mouth, mouth sores and increased risks of decay, along with simple tips of ways to avoid or manage these complications. The bags also contained product samples that were donated from various companies.

Around 2010, many companies were no longer willing or able to donate samples that I used to stock the bags. By 2012, I no longer had enough items to keep the program going and needed to decide if I was going to discontinue the program or try to expand my outreach in some way. That is how the idea of Side Effect Support LLC was created. Besides offering helpful information to survivors, caregivers and healthcare professionals, we are proud to offer affordable oral care products specific to the needs of those suffering from side effects of treatments. I feel that is an important service to offer to those who have a compromised immune system, so they can avoid the need of traveling from store to store.

The products include an updated version of a “goody bag” that is perfect as a gift or for clinics to offer to their patients. Our brochure, “Cancer Treatments and Your Oral Health” can be downloaded and printed at no charge. I would love to see more facilities providing Oral Care Kits for their patients. It is such a simple, yet valuable tool to increase comfort and decrease complications during cancer treatments.

What long-term impact do tooth decay and oral infections have on people undergoing cancer treatment?

There are many variables that determine what type of oral side effects might be experienced both during and after cancer treatments. Those who do experience tooth decay and infections while undergoing cancer treatments can experience pain, tooth loss, nutritional issues, and risks of serious widespread infections. After cancer treatments are complete, patients can face a huge time and financial investment to restore their mouth to a healthy state. Tooth loss and oral disease can also greatly affect self-esteem and general quality-of-life. Oral health is something many take for granted until they no longer have it.

How important is it to include a Registered Dental Hygienist in a cancer patient’s care team both before and after treatment?

Registered Dental Hygienists (RDH) can be valuable members of the cancer care team because our profession is based on the focus of prevention. The extent of the role that the RDH can play varies from state to state. For example, I live in Wisconsin, and because of practice limitations set by our state examining board, a hygienist’s skills cannot be utilized to the same extent as a hygienist from another state that allows expanded functions. But I would like to encourage all hygienists that we can make a difference no matter what our practice limitations may be!

Proactive oral care, proper information and preventive strategies presented to cancer survivors before treatments begin can empower them to make necessary choices to improve their oral health and minimize their risks. For example, when the immune system is compromised, tooth decay and oral infection can cause serious complications that may lead to delays in treatments or more wide-spread infection throughout the body.

What do you see as the future of comprehensive preventative oral care standards?

In the future, I envision more of a collaboration between the medical and dental fields for all aspects of patient care. The mouth is not separate from the rest of the body. Our oral health is greatly affected by our overall health just as our general health is affected by our oral health.

Some cancer centers currently utilize dental professionals as part of their team but these tend to be focused only on cancers and radiation of the head and neck region. But other treatments, besides head and neck radiation, can have significant effects on oral health and comfort. For example, there are also long-term risks of complications with the jaw bone, called osteonecrosis, from bone-building medications (also known as MRONJ) that may be used along with chemotherapy. Although the risks to develop this condition with medications are low, they are very real. Osteonecrosis can be disfiguring and lead to serious problems with nutrition. The top ways to prevent osteonecrosis from medications are through preventive oral care, patient education and proper oral hygiene, which are all part the dental hygienist’s job description.

Can you talk about the importance of winning the 2014 Award of Distinction for your professional achievement?

I was very humbled to be recognized as a recipient of the 2014 RDH/Sunstar Award of Distinction! Each year since 2002, Sunstar Americas and RDH Magazine have recognized dental hygienists for their personal achievements in community service, education, and clinical work. I was one of eight recipients in 2014 that was defined as, “unselfish, innovative, perceptive, and life changers.” I am proud to provide a needed service that is not widely available.

The award has helped to raise awareness of the oral health needs of oncology patients and to the services that are offered through Side Effect Support LLC. Being recognized with a national award also reinforced that the unmet needs that I was witnessing personally, are a much more widespread problem.

You can follow Jill on her Facebook and Twitter.

Join us Wednesday, June 1st on Blab.im for a live discussion with Jill.


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