Oral health and cancer

Oral hygienists: the essential allies

April 1, 2024 Word for Word Media 0Comment

Melanie Wright unpacks the invaluable role oral hygienists play in the care of head and neck cancer patients undergoing treatment.


You can listen to this article below, or by using your favourite podcast player at pod.link/oncologybuddies

Patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer present with unique challenges to their oral health-related quality of life. This can be brought upon by the disease itself or the management thereof.

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can profoundly affect oral health, leading to complications that demand specialised and focused care. Amidst this challenging landscape, oral hygienists emerge as essential allies, providing critical support and guidance to patients navigating the oral side effects of cancer management.

Cancer of the tongue

Cancer of the tongue is one scenario where our role becomes crucial. We aim to provide relief and prevent unwanted sequalae from cancer management. These patients may experience partial loss of their tongue, with or without flap reconstruction and with or without associated scarring. This impairs function related to speech, swallowing, taste perception and oral hygiene. Without the tongue’s muscular movements to aid in cleansing and food manipulation, maintaining proper oral hygiene becomes particularly challenging. Moreover, the altered anatomy can increase the risk of unwanted complications, such as oral mucositis, fungal infections, and dental caries. The inability to articulate words clearly due to the absence of the tongue can also lead to communication difficulties, exacerbating feelings of isolation and frustration. This altered state can have a profound physical, emotional, and psychological impact.

Consults during radiation

Oral hygienists’ supportive role means we see patients weekly during radiation with lifelong maintenance thereafter. This allows us the privilege to be part of their management and gain a glimpse into their lives during one of the most challenging times they experience.

Our responsibility goes beyond oral hygiene care and education specifically tailored to specific scenarios. We serve as compassionate caregivers, offering emotional support and empathy to patients grappling with the physical and emotional toll of their condition. We understand the profound impact that this journey has on their sense of identity, self-esteem, and quality of life. By lending a listening ear, providing reassurance, and connecting them

with resources and support networks, we help patients navigate their journey with greater resilience and confidence. In addition to our direct interactions with patients, we collaborate closely with a multi-disciplinary healthcare team to ensure comprehensive care co-ordination. We communicate with oncologists, surgical teams, speech therapists, dietitians, prosthodontists, and other specialists to monitor patients’ oral health status and progress. We identify emerging issues and develop individualised treatment plans that address patients’ evolving needs through their management.

Advocates for oral health

Furthermore, we play a crucial role in advocating for the integration of oral health into the broader cancer care continuum. By raising awareness about the importance of oral care among healthcare providers, policymakers, and the public, we strive to improve access to preventative and supportive dental services for cancer patients, ultimately enhancing their overall well-being and treatment outcomes.

Oral hygienists play an invaluable role in the care of head and neck cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. Through our expertise, compassion, and advocacy, we empower patients to maintain oral health, cope with treatment-related challenges and reclaim a sense of normalcy in their lives. As integral members of the healthcare team, we contribute to the holistic care of cancer patients, embodying the principle that optimal health encompasses not only the absence of disease but also the preservation of dignity, function, and quality of life.

Melanie Wright

MEET THE EXPERT – Melanie Wright


Melanie Wright is an oral hygienist and is currently working at a specialised prosthodontic practice alongside Dr Michael and Dr van der Linde; they all function as an integral part of the Morningside Head and Neck Oncology Team.


Header image by Freepik
cover 2024 BIG C Preparing for treatment