For Some Cancers, Prevention Begins in Your Mouth

Regular brushing and flossing may do more than prevent cavities — they could help protect against cancer. New research reveals that older women with periodontal (gum) disease have a 14% increased risk of cancer.

“There are all kinds of pathogens (germs) in your mouth,” explains Kirsten Moysich, PhD, MS, Distinguished Professor of Oncology in Roswell Park’s Department of Cancer Prevention and Control. “And there are a lot of ways those pathogens can go into circulation. With cancer of the esophagus, for example, the germs can be swallowed and reach the target tissue directly, and they can cause damage down the line.”

Dr. Moysich, who is also Academic Program Chair of the University at Buffalo’s Cancer Pathology and Prevention Department, was part of a team of nine UB researchers who co-authored a study documenting a link between gum disease and cancer risk in older women. Published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the study examined data gathered from nearly 66,000 women enrolled in the ongoing Women’s Health Initiative. The average age of study participants was 68.

The study showed that periodontal disease was most strongly associated with cancer of the esophagus. (Breast and lung were among the other associated cancers.) The study was also the first to show increased risk of gallbladder cancer in people with periodontal disease.

Dr. Moysich cautions that a 14% increased cancer risk “is a slight increase. It’s not something I would stay up worrying about at night. But it underlines that oral health is very important. Keep your mouth in shape, have regular dental checkups, have regular cleanings, and brush and floss,” she advises. “This is a risk factor for cancer that’s somewhat avoidable with good oral hygiene.”

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About the research team: Among the study’s nine authors were two who earned graduate degrees from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Graduate Division, including first author Ngozi Nwizu, BDS, MMSc, PhD, now Assistant Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and Jean Wactawski-Wende, PhD, Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions. James Marshall, PhD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Roswell Park, also contributed to the study.