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Cancer and the Mouth/Body Relationship

Here at the Holistic Dental Center, oral cancer screenings are a normal part of holistic hygiene visits, and there’s a very good reason for that. Consider: More than 50,000 Americans get diagnosed with oral cancer each year, and only 57% of them, on average, will still be alive five years later.

In fact, the death rate for oral cancer is higher than for cervical cancer, testicular cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and others that you often hear a lot more about.

That’s not because cancers of the mouth and upper throat (oropharyngeal cancers) are inherently more problematic to your overall health. They are more likely to be caught late, after the cancer has progressed or even metastasized to another location, often the lymph nodes.

Caught early, however, it’s readily treatable, with a five-year survival rate of 85%.

Lowering Your Oral Cancer Risk

Even better than early detection, of course, is keeping oral cancer from developing in the first place. Most important is addressing any risk factors. The most common of these are

  • Smoking or other tobacco use (and most likely vaping, as well).
  • Heavy alcohol consumption.
  • Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).

Quitting tobacco, cutting back on drinking, and consistently practicing safer sex can all help lower your risk. Eating right, getting enough quality sleep and physical activity, and other components of a healthy lifestyle can also be of help – just as they are against the whole array of systemic health conditions.

It’s also easy to do self-exams at home. Here’s how:

The Link Between Oral Health & Other Kinds of Cancer

While oral cancers may seem an obvious dental concern, many people don’t realize that regular dental care and good oral hygiene may also lower your risk of a number of other types of cancer, kinds that occur far beyond the mouth.

We’ve briefly looked at some of the science supporting this before, after research out of Harvard showed that people with a history of gum disease have a higher risk of developing stomach and esophageal cancers. Other research has found a relationship between poor periodontal health and pancreatic cancer, as well as a 75% greater risk of liver cancer.

One very large study published earlier this year shed even more light on this particular mouth/body link. It involved more than half a million cancer-free adults in the China Kadoorie Biobank study, a long-term collaboration between the UK and China to explore how lifestyle, environmental, and genetic factors impact a wide range of common diseases.

Each individual completed a questionnaire at the start of the research period, which focused on their oral hygiene practices and experience with bleeding gums (a clear sign of gum disease). Their overall health was tracked for several years, and all together, this data was used to determine the risk of a variety of cancer types.

The roughly 15% of the participants who reported having poor oral health were found to have a higher risk of both cancer diagnosis and cancer-related deaths. The most significant connections were found to be with

  • Stomach cancer.
  • Esophageal cancer and death.
  • Liver cancer and death.

The association was even stronger for those living in rural areas compared to those living in cities.

Our findings indicate that poor oral health is associated with higher risk for cancers, especially digestive system cancers.

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The positive association between poor oral health and total cancer risk observed here is consistent with findings from previous cohort studies, including studies conducted in Japan, U.S., Sweden and China. Although different studies used different surrogate markers (e.g. periodontal disease, tooth number or tooth brushing) as indicators of poor oral health, all the above studies suggested a positive link between oral health status and overall cancer risk.

It’s just one more way in which oral health and whole body health remain inseparable.