Remember when you were a kid (or maybe even an adult) and your dentist stressed the importance of regularly brushing and flossing?
He wasn’t only concerned with helping you prevent cavities or bad breath. The truth is that neglecting your mouth can lead to a whole host of serious health problems – including cancer.
Interestingly, researchers have also noticed that many patients undergoing cancer therapy develop some type of oral complications.
What does all of this mean? In this post, we’ll delve into the link between cancer and oral health.
The Risk of Cancer
First of all, is this just another scare tactic? Doesn’t everything give you cancer these days?
Actually, this is one risk that can be backed up by many scientific studies. Consider a few recent findings:
- At Harvard University, researchers found that men with a history of gum disease had a 64% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than men with healthy teeth and gums.
- A study in the UK found that women with periodontal disease were three times as likely to develop esophageal cancer and twice as likely to develop gallbladder cancer.
- Another UK study found a 31% increased risk of lung cancer, a 23% increased risk of skin cancer, and a 13% increased risk of breast cancer in women with gum disease.
- A study at the University of Texas found that participants with poor oral health had a 56% higher risk of developing an oral HPV (human papillomavirus) infection than those who had good oral health. This virus has been linked to mouth and throat cancer.
Clearly, the link between poor oral health and cancer exists. The question is: Why?
Explaining the Link
The short answer is that no one knows for certain why periodontal disease increases the risk of developing cancer.
Scientists, though, have come up with a few interesting theories. The most popular one is that chronic inflammation in the gums triggers inflammation in other areas of the body – thus creating a perfect environment for cancer to grow.
Other researchers are examining the bacteria associated with gum disease to see if it’s the trigger for certain types of cancer. This bacteria can travel to different parts of your body through your saliva. Since it comes in contact with your stomach and esophagus when you swallow, it increases the risk of developing cancer in these areas.
Still, others look to the numerous things that gum disease releases into the mouth (and therefore body). These include inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, growth factors, prostaglandins, and enzymes. All of these factors are associated with cancer development.
With more research, scientists will likely find a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between oral health and cancer. In the meantime, your best bet is to minimize your risk of cancer by continuing with your good oral routine.
There’s one more link we want to touch on before we go. What if you or someone you love has already developed cancer and is undergoing treatment right now?
The Link Between Cancer Treatment and Oral Health
We’re familiar with the more common side effects of cancer treatment, including hair loss and nausea.
But did you know that more than one-third of cancer patients also develop serious complications in their mouth? These range from minor annoyances like dry mouth to potentially life-threatening oral infections.
Not only can these complications affect the patient’s quality of life, but they can also interfere with the cancer treatments.
The National Institute of Dental Research recommends these tips for keeping your mouth healthy during cancer treatments:
- Soak an extra-soft toothbrush in warm water before you brush.
- Brush and floss daily and gently.
- Avoid mouthwash with alcohol.
- Sip water throughout the day to avoid dry mouth.
- Avoid spicy, sour, crunchy, very hot, or very cold foods.
- If you vomit, rinse your mouth with warm water and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda (don’t swallow).
- Contact your doctor if you develop any sores, swelling, or bleeding inside your mouth.
More research is needed to determine the exact connection between oral health and cancer.
In the meantime, there’s already plenty of evidence that it’s a risk everyone should take seriously.
To minimize yours, continue brushing and flossing daily and scheduling regular visits with your dentist.