In recent years, several studies have been published showing that gum disease is associated with higher risk for many different types of cancers. Some studies show a strong link with breast cancer. Other links have been shown with lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and, of course, oral cancer. There has even been a new study released linking oral bacteria to esophageal cancer, a link that has been confirmed several times over the past five years.
But does this really mean that gum disease is causing cancer? The answer to that question is complicated.
Strictly Speaking: We Don’t Have an Answer
The strictest answer is that science hasn’t answered this question yet. Science has established that there is a correlation between the two things: gum disease and cancer seem to occur more frequently in the same people. This is, really, just the first stage in the proof of a link between the two conditions.
Next, we will want to establish that gum disease precedes cancer development. Basically, people with gum disease today and no cancer, will develop cancer later. This can be a hard thing to show primarily because it involves long-term observation of large populations to get statistically significant information.
Finally, we would want to establish a mechanism by which gum disease bacteria could be causing these various types of cancer.
Strong Hints Exist
Although we don’t have the large-scale population data we’d like to have to establish the causal link between gum disease and cancer, we do have several strong hints about potential mechanisms that could link gum disease to cancer.
One is very straightforward: inflammation. Gum disease is a chronic infection that causes both localized inflammation where the bacteria grow and systemic inflammation due to the excitation of the immune system. Higher inflammation has also been linked to increased cancer risk because of its potential for genetic damage and interference with the cell’s normal regulatory mechanisms.
But perhaps the most intriguing link between oral bacteria and cancer comes from a study showing that the oral bacterium Fusobacterium nucleatum can effectively cloak cancer cells from the immune system. This doesn’t mean that F. nucleatum causes cancer, but it does mean that the bacteria allow cancer cells to avoid detection and so grow from a few isolated cells into a large tumor before the immune system can intervene.
Although this particular connection was only shown for this one bacterium, other oral bacteria show similar abilities to undermine or even co-opt the human immune response. It would not be surprising if this proved to be the link between gum disease and many of these cancers.
Maintaining Oral Health Improves Overall Health
Although we don’t yet know that gum disease causes cancer, we know enough to confidently assert the premise of holistic dentistry: your overall health depends on your oral health. If you don’t maintain your oral health properly, you may face serious health consequences, possibly far from the oral cavity.
If you are looking for a Rochester dentist who protects your oral health with an eye toward maintaining your overall health, please call (585) 244-3337 today for an appointment at Contemporary Dentistry.