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Why does gum disease raise cancer risk?

There is no conclusive research showing that gum disease raises cancer risk. Studies indicate that severe gum disease may be associated with several other health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or stroke. However, saying that two conditions are associated is not the same as saying that one causes the other. It only means that some studies have shown that more people with gum disease experience one of the conditions mentioned above than people without gum disease. This finding could be the result of another factor, like smoking. For example, people who smoke are at higher risk for heart disease, stroke and cancer as well as gum disease. Well-designed clinical trials are needed to establish whether a cause-and-effect relationship exists and to determine if, or how, treating gum disease may affect your overall health.

I must give a slightly different answer to the question than did Dr. Curatola. It is important to state that it has NOT been established that gum disease causes cancer, nor that it increases the risk of cancer. The most likely source of this notion is this paper, in the Lancet from 2008:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1470204508701062

Dr. Curatola has been careful to point out that gum disease is associated with cancer. One of the most often repeated clichés in clinical research (because the tendency to confuse) is that "association does NOT mean causation".

In this case, one of the confounders is smoking, which is associated with both gum disease and smoking. The study "adjusts" for risk factors -- that is, it is supposed to compare apples to apples, and smokers and non-smokers are assessed separately (other risk factors are also said to be adjusted for). The authors conclude that the associations of gum disease with cancers of various forms “need(s) confirmation".

This does not mean that gum disease does not have implications for overall health. The association between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease and low birth weight are considerably stronger.

In any case, gum disease has caused incalculable suffering through the years--we need not say, "floss or die!" to convince patients that taking gum disease seriously is a worthwhile goal.
 
While the precise cause of the correlation between gum disease and cancer risk is the subject of extensive research, much attention is directed at the inflammation process, the oral biofilm, and the competency of the immune response.

When in balance (homeostasis), the oral biofilm, a complex community of billions of bacteria in the mouth, actually protect you and support your body's ability to live. However, when disturbed, the oral biofilm produces pathogens (bad bacteria) that lead to gum disease. These bacteria can also get into your blood (circulatory system) and do nasty things. Pathogenic bacteria, and the toxins associated with them, place your immune system on alert (the inflammation process) and cause the liver to produce C-reactive proteins (CRP). CRP levels have inflammatory effects on arteries allowing these bacteria to attach themselves and form dangerous plaques inside the linings of these vessels.

Gum disease has been identified as the body's most abundant source of chronic low-grade inflammation which is described as "a smoldering fire in your body where the alarm bell is not answered." This causes a decrease in the body's immune response, and eventually, irreversible damage to the immune system, which is being identified as a likely factor for the increased cancer risk.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.