Cancer patients slugged out-of-pocket costs for dental care

Saturday 27 July, 2019

Australians diagnosed with cancer are being hit by thousands of dollars in hidden out-of-pocket costs for dental work and dental rehabilitation to replace teeth that have been removed or damaged during and after treatment, Cancer Council Victoria has highlighted today .

Particularly feeling the pinch are people with head and neck cancers, with patients being slugged the cost of dental appointments, prosthodontist work and oral health care above and beyond their other medical costs and any lost earnings whilst they undergo treatment. About 4,400 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancers in Australia each year.

The Cancer Council is drawing attention to the gap today on World Head and Neck Cancer Day, to raise awareness of out-of-pocket cancer costs that often aren’t considered, and that haven’t yet been unravelled when looking at the impact of cancer on people’s finances.

Danielle Spence, Head of Strategy and Support at Cancer Council Victoria, said dental health is a key component of general health.

“Many people wouldn’t realise the impact that cancer treatment has on dental health, not only for people with head and neck cancers, but for anyone undergoing cancer treatment.

“Before starting chemotherapy or radiotherapy, patients need to visit the dentist to have their teeth checked to reduce the chance of infection, and treatment can affect mouth health which can require further attention. These are all hidden costs that add up for patients and their families at an already challenging time.”

Ms Spence said missing teeth and poor dental health can affect the day-to-day function of the lives of cancer patients, as well as their body image and self-esteem.

Cancer patient Vicki Hayes has been shocked by the out-of-pocket dental costs that she has been hit with following her diagnosis of tonsil cancer three years ago.

“I was always vigilant with my dental care and saw a dentist regularly before my diagnosis, yet I needed to have teeth removed pre-treatment – already $1000 from my own pocket.

“Since my treatment I have noticed my teeth have changed and are much more fragile. As a result, I have been keeping up with regular dental reviews privately.”

Vicki has now been told that she will need the remaining teeth to be removed and major oral surgery to insert prosthesis into my bones to accommodate implants – with a cost of around $20,000 to $25,000 - all of which will need to be self-funded.

“I have private health insurance, but that only covers so much, and the costs really do mount up quickly. I plan to take money out of my superannuation to cover these costs,” Vicki said.

“As well as the mounting costs and financial impact, having dental issues has really affected my body image and self-esteem.”

Associate Professor Ian Hewson, a specialist in head and neck cancers at St Vincent’s Hospital, said patients who have any treatment for head and neck cancer will almost certainly have their oral function and health severely compromised.

“Radiotherapy can damage the saliva glands reducing saliva flow and the protective effect to teeth, leading to a significant increase in dental disease. It is essential that patients see a dentist at least three times a year – which adds up quickly.

“Other patients will require much more intrusive treatments, such as surgery to remove bone from the jaw, which can then require dental rehabilitation, implants or dentures. All of these treatments are vital, but the costs are just devastating for some of my patients.”