Protecting young teeth

UF dental student helps teach children side effects of cancer treatments

By: Alexis Bajalia

University of Florida dental student Daili Diaz, 24, gives presentations to young cancer patients about the importance of maintaining oral hygiene while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.

One day, University of Florida College of Dentistry student Daili Diaz was sitting in class listening to a lecture that sparked an idea.

Pamela Sandow, D.M.D., the college’s assistant dean for admissions and financial aid and director of the Oral Medicine Clinic, was speaking about oncology treatments including chemotherapy and radiation and how they can cause oral complications in patients, including salivary gland dysfunction, gum disease, tooth decay and infection.

Diaz learned that dry mouth is a side effect of cancer treatment and medication. Without enough saliva, which serves as a protective barrier against infection, patients are more susceptible to gum disease, mouth sores and tooth decay. To avoid weight loss as a result of treatment, patients tend to consume high-calorie, sugary diets, which can lead to increased bacteria in the mouth, also adding to the risk of tooth decay.

“I’m sitting in class and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, we’re getting this information, but who is actually telling the patients?’” the 24-year-old said.

Diaz got in touch with Tracie Kilcrease, R.N., at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital. Kilcrease, who has been Diaz’s main point of contact at UF Health over the past year, coordinates with Diaz and seven other dental students who volunteer at the hospital’s infusion center where children, from toddlers to adolescents, receive chemotherapy.

The dental students call their project “Infuse Smiles at Shands.” Using puppets with teeth and dental-related coloring books, Diaz and her peers give presentations twice a month to pediatric cancer patients and their families about the importance of maintaining oral hygiene before, during and after treatment.

“Being at a dental school that has a hospital close by gives us the opportunity to offer so much help,” Diaz said.

With help from Sandow and the Oral Medicine Clinic, the department of community dentistry and behavioral science, Crest Oral-B and Xlear spray the dental students are able to supply goodie bags consisting of items like sugar-free candy and alcohol-free mouthwash to about 15 to 20 oncology patients each time they visit the infusion center.

As patients receive treatment, the dental students encourage them to brush their teeth, drink water and avoid sugary foods, while also entertaining them.
“When you’re with patients who are undergoing hardships and you see how strong they are, it’s really encouraging,” Diaz said. “It’s a drive that you want to keep alive.”

Diaz plans to expand the workshops to UF Health nurses so they, too, can learn more about the oral side effects of cancer treatment and encourage patients to take better care of their teeth.

“Daili has taken the ball and run with it,” Sandow said. “She is living out one of the College of Dentistry’s missions, which is for our students to strive to help others and be leaders in their communities, even after dental school.”

“We always think that by helping other people, we’re doing something great for them,” Diaz said. “But we get so much in return.”

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