Why we need to talk about cancer and dental health

Last week, I was privileged to lead a debate in Parliament on access to dentistry for cancer patients. I did this to highlight the phenomenal campaigning of my constituent, Michele.

Michele is a cancer survivor who has spent years raising awareness of the important, but often unrecognised, connection between cancer and dental health.

While dental health might not be one of the first things that come into your head when you think of cancer, the links between the two are significant.

That’s because both chemotherapy and radiotherapy can worsen existing dental health issues or cause new ones entirely. Both treatments upset the natural balance of bacteria in the mouth and can lead to ulcers, crumbling teeth, or potentially serious infection. In some cases, the emergence of these problems can prevent cancer treatment from beginning or continuing, and I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of people who were previously dentally healthy losing almost all their teeth during treatment.

In other words, people with cancer need to be able to access dentistry. And this is where the crisis in our dental system is causing huge problems for those who are already going through so much.

Finding an NHS dentist is becoming almost impossible. Less than 4% of NHS dental practices in my local authority area of Trafford are accepting new adult patients and the number of NHS dentists in England has fallen to levels not seen since 2016.

What this means for most people is the choice of going private or going without. When the costs of private dentistry are so high, that’s not really a choice at all for many, especially those with cancer who are often on lower incomes because of their condition. According to Macmillan, a cancer diagnosis leads to a person being around £570 a month worse off, with 33% of cancer patients having to give up work during their treatment.

One of the reasons this matters so much is that in cases where dental treatment is essential to the progress of cancer treatment, not being able to see a dentist can have potentially life-changing consequences.

Take the example of Kelly, one of Michele’s campaign supporters. Kelly is waiting to start bisphosphonate treatment, which is needed to strengthen bones that are at risk of breaking due to cancer. To start this vital treatment, she must first undergo important dental work, which is proving impossible as she cannot find an affordable dentist.

That Kelly, and others like her, are facing delays to their cancer treatment because they cannot access dental care is clearly unacceptable.

We must improve access to dentistry for cancer patients as a matter of urgency and this is where Michele’s campaign comes in.

While the long-term goal of the campaign-which now has almost 200,000 supporters- is free dental care for cancer patients, it also proposes more immediate options for improving access to dental treatment. These include prioritising cancer patients for NHS dentistry and ensuring that there is clear NHS guidance on the need for cancer patients to receive dental care provided at the first point of contact with their GP or cancer team.

The campaign is also calling for cancer and dentistry services to be joined together so those with cancer can be offered out-patient appointments with hospital dentists alongside their other treatment. This is an achievable, practical step that could make a real difference.

I was pleased that last week’s debate gave me the chance to highlight these proposals to Andrea Leadsom, the government minister with responsibility for dentistry. She recognised the challenges cancer patients are facing to access dental care and kindly agreed to meet with Michele and I to discuss to this further.

The Shadow Minister for Public Health and Primary Care, Preet Gill, also met Michele and I before the debate in what was a very constructive conservation about Michele’s campaign and the issues behind it.

I hope these meetings can be beginning of cross-party work on cancer and dental care because this isn’t a party-political issue, but it is something we must get right. It is the least we can do for people who are already facing one of life’s toughest challenges.

Andrew Western MP

Andrew Western is the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston, and was elected in 2022. He currently undertakes the role of Opposition Whip (Commons).