If you’ve gotten chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, or radiation therapy for cancer in your head, neck or mouth, there’s a good chance you’ve also experienced mucositis.
With this uncomfortable side effect, you get sores/ulcers/lesions in the parts of your body that have a mucus lining. Mucositis can be quite painful, and make it difficult to chew or swallow.
The wounds typically appear above the shoulders (i.e. the mouth, throat and sinuses), and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it shows up in 40% of patients receiving standard-dose chemotherapy, 75% of patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation (BMT), and 80% of patients receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancer.
Chafeek Tomeh, MD, an otolaryngology specialist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona, talked to us about mucositis in cancer patients, and how to best manage it.
Tip #1: Get professional advice immediately
Dr. Tomeh said patients often put off getting help for their mucositis until the pain has become debilitating. He advised that anyone experiencing mucositis after cancer treatment should seek professional advice right away. When chewing or swallowing is painful, patients are less likely to eat well (or eat enough).
“Bad pain equals bad nutrition,” he said. “And bad nutrition equals bad healing!”
Your health care provider can give helpful advice on mucositis pain management and nutrition. In some instances, a temporary feeding tube may be a patient’s best option.
Tip #2: Clean your mouth regularly
The National Cancer Institute recommends you take extra care checking and cleaning your mouth daily. Try incorporating the following practices into your daily routine:
- Clean your teeth and mouth every four hours and at bedtime. Do this more often if the mucositis becomes worse.
- Use a soft-bristle toothbrush.
- Replace your toothbrush often.
- Use water-soluble lubricating jelly, to keep your mouth moist.
- Use mild rinses or plain water. Frequent rinsing removes pieces of food and bacteria from the mouth, prevents crusting of sores, and moistens and soothes sore gums and the lining of the mouth.
- If mouth sores begin to crust over, temporarily use the following rinse, for no more than two days: 3% hydrogen peroxide, mixed with equal amounts water or salt water. (To make a saltwater mixture, put 1/4 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water.)
Tip #3: Choose gentle foods
When you’ve got sores in your mouth or throat, food starts to look a little less delicious. Choosing foods that are soft and/or wet can make chewing and swallowing a lot easier. Consider softening your dry foods with things like gravy, sauce or other liquids. Blenders can also come in handy.
You’ll want to avoid foods that are overly crunchy, salty, spicy or sugary. It’s also a good idea to avoid tobacco products.
Tip #4: Be patient!
“I always encourage patients that things will get better,” Dr. Tomeh said. “It is a misconception that the pain will always be there. For the vast majority of patients, that is not the case.”
Mucositis will usually go away on its own. The National Cancer Institute says mucositis caused by chemotherapy typically heals itself in two to four weeks if there’s no infection. And mucositis caused by radiation therapy usually lasts six to eight weeks, depending on the length of treatment.
If it lasts longer, Dr. Tomeh said there are likely nutrition problems, dental care issues or remaining tumor(s). Lingering mucositis tends to happen more often in the elderly. For the elderly or those with bad nutrition, he said healing mucositis can sometimes last an entire year. Smoking can also prevent complete healing, and increase your risk of the cancer recurring. Whatever your situation, just be patient with yourself.
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