Periodontal Health and Cancer

Taking care of your teeth and gums may not only save your smile, it could help save your life.  Research suggests an association between periodontal disease and certain types of cancer.   Periodontal disease is caused by bacterial infection and inflammation of the gums that over time causes loss of bone that supports the teeth; tooth loss is a consequence of severe periodontal disease.

After adjusting for age, smoking, diabetes, body mass index and a number of other factors, researchers found significant associations between a history of periodontal disease and several cancers, including:

  • A 36% increase in risk of lung cancer
  • A 49% increase in the risk of kidney cancer
  • A 54% increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer
  • And a 30% increase in the risk of hematologic cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma  

One established risk factor in cancer is cigarette smoking; other links have been made to obesity, diabetes type 2 and insulin resistance.  However, studies show that never-smokers had a two-fold increase in risk of pancreatic cancer.  One possible explanation for the results is that inflammation from periodontal disease may promote cancer.  Individuals with periodontal disease have elevated serum biomarkers of systemic inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, and these may somehow contribute to the promotion of cancer cells.

Another explanation is that periodontal disease could lead to increased pancreatic carcinogenesis because individuals with periodontal disease have higher levels of oral bacteria and higher levels of nitrosamines, which are carcinogens, in their oral cavity. Prior studies have shown that nitrosamines and gastric acidity may play a role in pancreatic cancer.  

As well, researchers have found that people diagnosed with head and neck cancers were much more likely to have chronic periodontal disease than people without cancer. This may help explain why head and neck cancer rates continue to climb although smoking rates have been declining for the last 40 years.

This adds to a growing body of research that shows chronic inflammation and infection can affect the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other health problems.

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the US, but tragically, there have been no significant strides in improving survival rates in the past 30 years. We lack reliable early detection techniques and by the time people with oral cancer seek medical help, the disease is often advanced. That is one reason it is important for you to know the symptoms of mouth cancer.


Lesion, lump, or ulcer:

  • May be a deep, hard-edged crack in the tissue
  • Most often pale colored, may be dark or discolored
  • On the tongue, lip, or other mouth area
  • Usually painless at first (may develop a burning sensation or pain when the tumor is advanced)
  • Usually small

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:

Risk Factors

  • Tobacco use (including chewing tobacco or snuff) is associated with 70 – 80% of oral cancer cases.
  • Heavy alcohol use . 
  • Poor oral hygiene and chronic irritation (such as from rough teeth, dentures, or fillings).
  • Infection with HPV (human papilloma virus)
  • Age over 40


You should see your dentist regularly for dental examination and preventive care.  Many oral cancers can be discovered by routine dental examinationAny mouth sore that does not go away after two weeks is cause for concern and may be an early sign of mouth cancer.

Other tips:

  • Have dental problems corrected
  • Minimize or avoid alcohol use
  • Minimize or avoid smoking or other tobacco use
  • Practice good oral hygiene