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Gum Disease and Cancer: What We Do and Don't Know


Gum disease has long been linked to heart disease. Now it is being reported that the condition can increase the risk of certain cancers - like cancers of the esophagus and the stomach. But while there may be a link between gum disease and an increased cancer risk there is no concrete evidence of a cause and effect relationship. "We can't say if you don't treat your gum disease you are going to die from cancer," said James Winkler, DDS, PhD, with University of Utah's School of Dentistry. "In fact, we cannot say if the increased risk is because of gum disease at all."

That's right. While people who suffer from gum disease have an increased risk of cancer, it may not be the fault of the gum disease. It may be that both conditions develop due to issues in the immune system. Genetics could also play a role. "As we learn more about genetics we find a lot of your risk is based on your genetic make-up," said Winkler. "You may have a makeup that makes you more prone for gum disease, or cancer, or both."

Even if a cause and effect link between gum disease and cancer is proven we may not know what bacteria are to blame—yet. Currently all eyes are on Tannerella forsythia and Porphyromonas gingivalis as potential culprits. However, that could change as more is learned about what lives in our mouths. "The bacteria that they are implicating are pretty nasty organisms," said Winkler. "But we have hundreds if not thousands of different types of organisms that live in our mouths. It could be one that has not been identified yet."

The term gum disease covers a wide range of conditions from gingivitis, which is a mild form, to necrotizing periodontal disease, which can lead to bone loss and other serious complications. Symptoms of gum disease include red or swollen gums that bleed easily. Bad breath or pain when chewing are also symptoms. As the condition worsens the bacteria can move below the gum line forming pockets and breaking down the structure of the teeth and the tissues that support them.

You can reduce your risk of gum disease by practicing good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth after meals, and floss after brushing. Be sure to see a dentist once a year as well to detect any problems that may arise. "Even if there is no proven cause and effect link between gum disease and cancer it is important to avoid gum disease, to decrease the overall inflammatory burden on the body," said Winkler.