November 19, 2021 by Peter B. Laird
Rediscovering the Joy of Food: Cancer Patient Benefits from Care by Dental Oncology Experts
Most of us take the ability to chew our favorite foods and speak so that we can be understood for granted. Not Magdalena Matias. Diagnosed and treated for oral melanoma at the age of 24, the Homestead woman has struggled for the past eight years just to be able to eat and talk. Today she has a new outlook on life, thanks to the unique and sophisticated services of Miami Cancer Institute’s Dental Oncology Clinic.
“Magdalena came to me with many problems,” says Evan Rosen, DMD, chief of Dental Oncology and Maxillofacial Prosthetics at Miami Cancer Institute, a part of Baptist Health South Florida. “It was really a quality of life issue.”
An old and ill-fitting prosthetic that covered the opening in Ms. Matias’s soft palate at the roof of her mouth left her sad and frustrated, Ms. Matias admits. Her diet was primarily restricted to soft foods, purees and soups. “When I would eat, it would leak and come out my nose. When I spoke, it sounded like I was in a hole. My family couldn’t even understand me. I was very desperate.”
At the Dental Oncology Clinic, cancer patients can receive a comprehensive oral health assessment ― ideally before treatment begins ― and treatment for problems that arise from cancer care. Radiation therapy, as well as some medications used for chemotherapy, can affect the mouth, teeth, salivary glands and bones, including the jaw. Dr. Rosen and his team can help prevent problems, as well as manage side effects of treatment. He also works side-by-side with head and neck surgeons in the operating room, removing teeth during surgery if necessary or properly fitting a prosthetic that has been crafted after a pre-surgery visit with the patient.
Good oral health is essential for cancer patients, stresses Dr. Rosen. “If a patient has an oral infection, without treatment these can cause a life-threatening event or get in the way of care,” he says.
Oral melanoma like Ms. Matias’s is rare, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. For her, an intense toothache was the first symptom of the cancer that affected her soft palate. After surgery and radiation therapy years ago outside of Baptist Health, she was fitted with a prosthetic. However, as time passed the device deteriorated and Ms. Matias couldn’t find anyone to help her.
Few cancer programs provide comprehensive dental oncology services like those offered at the Miami Cancer Institute, says Dr. Rosen, who graduated from the University of Florida College of Dentistry and then went on to complete a residency at the University of Rochester and a fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. And because the Dental Oncology Clinic is on the Institute campus, it is convenient for patients. Dr. Rosen also sees patients outside of the region and cares for patients with congenital problems such as cleft lip or palate, and those with growth and development issues.
“One of the great joys of doing this work is that we can impact someone’s life in such a meaningful way,” Dr. Rosen says. “It’s extremely rewarding.”
The future is bright for Ms. Matias, who once tried to hide her condition from her four children, who range in age from three to 14. “Now I eat everything. I feel like a new person. I’m happy and everyone is so happy for me.”