Top Oral Care Tips from Head and Neck Cancer Patients
Treatments for head and neck cancer, especially chemotherapy and radiation, can trigger changes in your mouth that will require extra care.
We went straight to those who know best — head and neck cancer survivors — to find out what works and what doesn’t.
Keep reading to get tips from Head and Neck Cancer Alliance (HNCA) ambassadors.
Stockpile supplies before treatment
You may not feel like shopping after you start treatment, so head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Stewart Lyman suggests making time in advance to gather a variety of things you may want to eat or drink after surgery, chemo, or radiation.
“I suggest a variety of items, since what you actually feel you can eat when the time comes varies from person to person,” Stewart says. “I stockpiled ice cream only to find out that cold items were bad [for me]. What I really wanted was hot broth. Others may have the opposite reaction.”
Saliva substitutes for nighttime dry mouth
Dry mouth is a common issue during and after treatment. You may need to experiment to find what works best for you. Here’s what helped three survivors get through the night:
- Head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Steve Cassidy recommends XyliMelts tablets.
- Gary Lazarz, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador, swears by “biotene before bed.”
- And Anthony White, patient/family advisor and HNCA ambassador, swishes a tiny bit (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon) of coconut oil at bedtime, which also acts as an antimicrobial to ward off bacteria.
Try gum for daytime dry mouth relief
With only one parotid salivary gland, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Tom Bennett says sugar-free chewing gum is his go-to solution for dry mouth during the day.
Befriend your dentist...
Within six months post-treatment, talk to your dentist about your cancer and treatment history.
“The ability to drop in for a quick cancer oral exam, fluoride treatment samples, or a prescription for an antibiotic for those canker sore breakouts is essential for long-term oral health,” Anthony says.
... And your toothbrush
Brushing your teeth may require extra care (consider switching to a soft brush) during treatment.
After treatment, your dentist will likely want you to increase your brushing habits, being extra sensitive to not cause gum recession. Gary suggests brushing every time you eat.
Head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Steve Holzer was reminded that flossing isn’t just a dance: He began flossing his teeth daily during his seven weeks of radiation.
You can also try a water pick. “They become addictive, but in the good way,” Anthony says.
Plan ahead with medications after cancer treatment
“Take your meds; don't just wait till you need them — because then it’s too late,” says Steve Cassidy, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador. That applies to pain meds and anti-constipation meds, among others.
Rethink your bedtime habits
When the phlegm seems overwhelming, sleep sitting up — and keep a cup handy for spitting, Steve suggests.
Take control of your care after cancer treatment
“Take control or be controlled,” says Hank Deneski, head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador. “Be your own advocate. Write down your list of concerns and questions to make sure you don’t forget anything. If the answer from the doctor or nurse is not clear, do not be afraid to ask them to repeat or rephrase the answer. Have someone accompany you to the appointment and have them take notes for you.”
Also, it’s great to research alternative therapies, but always check with your doctor to make sure they don’t interfere with other medication and treatments, he says.
Don’t expect a quick fix for mouth issues
When you’re going through treatment, says head and neck cancer survivor and HNCA ambassador Paul Reitano, your oncologist and medical team will give you lots of instructions on what to rinse with and gargle with and other tips.
“You should follow all of it,” he says. “The best thing you can do post-treatment is take your oral care very seriously. But know that it’s still going to suck. There’s no quick fix to misery.”
Many people think side effects improve immediately after their last cancer treatment, but that’s actually when many are at their weakest. Don’t worry: Things will improve, just be prepared that it won’t be instantaneous (For Paul, improvements started a couple of months post-treatment.)
Beyond oral care after head and neck cancer
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. See a counselor,” Steve advises. “Be nice to your support folks; it’s not their fault. Have a sense of humor.”