An Unmet Need for an Underserved Population.

The Rebekah Fund helps patients overcome a major hurdle in their fight against head and neck cancers: Dental care.

Patient receives chemotherapy. Photo taken in 2019

A cancer diagnosis is a shock to the system, bringing with it a slew of fears and unknowns. It’s a lot all on its own. But for patients whose cancer lives in the head and neck, the diagnosis comes with another hurdle they must overcome — and one that seemingly has little to do with fighting their disease: Dental care.

“No one really grasps how dental care relates to cancer treatment,” said Kelli Reardon, MD, who specializes in radiation oncology at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. “It’s a huge issue.”

Delivering radiation treatment to the head and neck can create two major issues, Dr. Reardon explained. For one, radiation can dry out a patient’s mouth, a condition that can become permanent. Saliva protects teeth and without it, patients are more prone to dental decay over time. The other problem that can occur is osteoradionecrosis of the jawbone, or a condition in which the jawbone dies. Patients who suffer this condition may have to endure hyperbaric oxygen treatment or undergo surgery in which parts of the leg bone are used to reconstruct the jawbone.

“These issues can affect patients with great teeth. And if they have pre-existing dental problems, radiation just adds to them,” Dr. Reardon said. “You can have lifelong consequences from radiation therapy.”

The problem is compounded when patients lack access to dental insurance, as is the case with many of Dr. Reardon’s patients. At times, patients will have a dental evaluation and discover they need to have all their teeth removed, a procedure that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And although the procedure is necessary to treat their cancer, medical insurance often won’t cover the costs.

“Patients will sometimes delay treatment, or they will refuse to get their teeth removed, which can be a major hindrance to their recovery,” Dr. Reardon said. 

Thankfully, for patients in need of radiation for head and neck cancers, there is an option available to help cover the unexpected costs of dental work. The Rebekah Fund was established in honor of Dawn Moose, MD, and is focused on ensuring cancer patients have access to critical dental care. Donors can choose to support the fund through Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation to ensure this critical need is met year after year.

Stacy Sawyers, a cancer support specialist at Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute located at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, helps patients access support through the Rebekah Fund and, as a result, hears the stories of need firsthand.

​​“As staggering as this sounds, it is very easy to see — hold onto your seats — a $10,000 or more bill for those services. I have one patient who showed me his bill, and it was over $27,000. The average is $15,000, and there is a minimum of 12 patients a year who will need that money,” Sawyers said. “It is certainly an under-met need.”

And it's an underserved population, Dr. Reardon said.

“Certain cancers don't get national attention, and they can fall by the wayside a bit when it comes to resources and support services. But we're seeing a huge rise in the number of head and neck cancers. And these patients are in need of care,” Dr. Reardon said. “A very small percentage of them have dental insurance, so the Rebekah Fund can be such a huge help to the majority of our patients.”

Your gift to the Rebekah Fund supports remarkable care.

You can help these patients by making a contribution through Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation. You can designate your gift specifically to the Rebekah Fund to ensure these patients have access to the dental care they need to give them the best shot at fighting and winning the battle against cancer.

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