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Dental oncology is one of the most highly-specialized fields of dentistry and it's one Dr. Erin Watson describes as "a real art form."
Dr. Watson, Deputy Chief of Dentistry at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre's Dental Oncology and Maxillofacial Prosthetics Clinic, says the primary role of her team is supporting survivorship.
"Eating and enjoying meals with family and friends is such an important part of human existence," says Dr. Watson. "Losing that has a significant impact on a patient."
At the clinic, a team of specialists provide life-changing diagnostic and therapeutic dental and facial prosthetic services to cancer patients before, during and after their treatment.
Every year, the clinic provides care to 1,600 new patients. Some cancer treatments can cause problems with the teeth and mouth, leading to the need for preventative or restorative care.
Patients may be receiving radiation therapy for head and neck cancers, require prosthetic care before or after head and neck surgery, undergoing stem cell or bone marrow transplants, taking certain types of medications, or have weakened immune systems due to treatment or a cancer type that increases the risk of infection.
"We want to ensure patients maintain a good quality of life for five years, 10 years and more down the line," says Dr. Watson.
Inequity in access to dental oncology is common in Ontario as many procedures are not covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and not every cancer patient is eligible.
Dr. Watson is determined to change this. She launched a Fellowship Program in Dental Oncology at the Princess Margaret – the first of its kind in Canada – in 2019.
Parents taught her 'I can achieve anything that I want'
A member of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto, she also conducts research, creates clinical guidelines for head and neck cancer patients, and collaborates with international experts to enhance treatment and knowledge sharing.
Dr. Watson hopes her steadfast commitment to provide exceptional and equitable care will change the future of dental oncology across Canada and around the world.
While more women are pursuing dentistry, there are fewer women in leadership roles in academic hospital centres.
"One reason might be that it's a rigorous and difficult environment and if you want to have children, managing a family life can be challenging – but it doesn't have to be that way," says Dr. Watson, a mother two.
Dr. Watson credits the wonderful team working in her department as well as her family for enabling her to pursue a successful career.
"One assistant knew I hadn't been able to pick up St. Patrick's Day items for my kids, so she brought a few to the office for me to give them," she says. "My mom has also been incredibly supportive, moving in with me two days a week for the first year of my daughter's life so I could head back to work."
Dr. Watson also credits her parents with instilling the mindset she could accomplish anything in life.
"My parents always promoted the idea that I can achieve anything that I want," she says, noting it is something she is trying to pass on to her daughter and son. "They steamrolled over the idea of any restrictions around what you can do and achieve."