The Relationship Between Oral Health and Oral Cancer

In 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in two US adults aged 30 and older suffer from periodontal or gum disease. It was also discovered that the prevalence of this condition is about 47.2 percent. The latter was found in a CDC study, Prevalence of Periodontitis in Adults in the United States: 2009 and 2010

Converging lines of studies have also shown that those with gum disease have a higher cancer of developing cancer.

Today, about 64.7 million American adults have mild, moderate, or severe cases of periodontal disease. Among people 65 and above, the prevalence rate rises to 70.1 percent. It’s a scary thought.

The Link Between Oral Health and Breast Cancer

In 2015, a study in the journal, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention, discovered that postmenopausal women with gum disease were more likely to develop breast cancer.

The research analyzed 73,737 postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study (WHI) without a current or previous diagnosis of breast cancer. Nearly 26 percent of the respondents had gum disease of some sort. Six-and-a-year years later, 2,124 of the women later had breast cancer.

The findings show that the risk of breast cancer in women with gum disease is 14 percent higher than those without gum disease.

Smoking makes matters worse, putting smoking women at an even greater risk. Women with gum disease who quit smoking within the last 20 years recorded a higher risk at 36 percent. Meanwhile, women with gum disease who never smoked had a six percent risk of breast cancer.

Breast cancer is one of the most widespread cancers, especially among women. The disease begins when breast cells grow out of control and form a tumor. The tumor can be malignant or cancerous when the cells invade the surrounding tissues and transfer to other areas of the body. At first, one may be completely unaware of the tumor’s formation. The tumor may be discovered via an X-ray or found in the form of an unusual lump during self-examination of the breasts and later confirmed by a doctor.

In the US, about one in eight women will have invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. About 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to appear in US women in 2017.

According to the non-profit organization,, over 3.1 million women in the US has/had breast cancer as of March 2017.

Gum Disease is usually Classified into Two Types: Gingivitis and Periodontitis

Gingivitis and Periodontitis are both serious oral diseases. However, they have their differences.


Considered a milder form of periodontal disease, gingivitis is often the first stage of its more serious counterpart. The gums become inflamed when plaque and tartar stay on the teeth for prolonged periods. Thus, this can cause redness, swelling, and bleeding of the gum tissue.

Fortunately, no bone loss occurs alongside gingivitis. It can also be reversed by practicing proper oral hygiene like regular brushing, daily flossing, and dental cleanings. 

But, patients diagnosed with gingivitis may require more frequent dental cleanings than those without the disease to revive their oral health.


Periodontitis is an advanced case of gum disease. It can damage the bones, gums, and tissues if left untreated. In periodontitis, the gums form spaces called pockets as they pull away from the teeth. These pockets then become infected, leading to inflammation around the teeth.

Aside from its effects on oral health, periodontal disease has links to other chronic diseases which include diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Researchers have also found relations between gum disease and cancers, including breast cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 508,000 deaths among women were due to breast cancer in 2011.

Breast cancer incidents in the country have remained stable since 2004. The mortality rate has decreased by 38 percent from 1989 to 2014. Still, minimizing the risk of breast cancer continues to be vital.

Avoiding Gingivitis & Periodontitis

To reduce their risk, one should exercise regularly, eat healthily, and maintain a healthy weight. Likewise, one should limit alcohol and smoking, and practice good oral care.

The CDC recommends keeping oral health in check by brushing and flossing daily. These daily tasks help remove bacteria lingering in the mouth. The dentist also plays a significant role in oral health. This is particularly true when detecting the signs of gum disease, which can be conducted via biannual check-ups.

Oral Cancer Risks, Signs, & Survival Rates

Oral cancer is the growth of cancerous tissue in the oral cavity. It comprises about 85 percent of all head and neck cancers.

Risk Factors

Smoking, chewing tobacco, and excessive alcohol consumption are some risks of oral cancer. Additionally, other risk factors are a family history of cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV), and excessive sun exposure. Still, the absence of risk factors does not excuse people from eventually developing cancer. After all, more than 25 percent of all oral cancers happen in individuals without a smoking history and occasional alcohol intake.

Prominent figures who battled oral cancer include renowned film critic, Roger Ebert. Ebert passed away from the disease in 2013. He received a diagnosis and treatment for cancer in his salivary gland in 2003. Before this diagnosis, he had papillary thyroid cancer. A cancerous tissue near his right jaw was surgically removed in 2006, resulting in the film critic’s inability to speak.

Survival Rates & Average Age of Development

Oral cancer of the lips has an optimistic survival rate. 93 percent of those with the diagnosis at the local stage have a five-year survival rate. A considerable plunge is observed at the regional level or when nearby tissues and lymph nodes have already been affected. Though, the numbers continue to show a positive outlook of survival at 48 percent. 

However, quite interestingly, the five-year survival rate for oral cancer of the lip for cases that spread to distant sites presents a higher figure than the regional stage. The survival rate for the latter was 52 percent.

For oral cancer of the tongue, the figures remain promising. Survival rates are at 78 percent for the local stage, 63 percent for the regional stage, and 36 percent for distant stages. Meanwhile, oral cancer of the tongue has a lower five-year relative survival rate than cases of the lip and tongue. 

Still, the numbers are considerably high. For instance, there’s a 75 percent survival rate for local stage oral cancer. The rate dips for the regional stage at 38 percent. And, distant stage oral cancer has a 20 percent survival rate. This is almost 50 percent and 74 percent lower than the local stage rate respectively.

The average age of developing oral cancer is 62 years old. Still, oral cancer can also affect people younger than 55. After all, 25% of oral cancer cases in this age group have been diagnosed. Regarding sex, men are more likely to have oral cancer than women.

Additionally, other factors that contribute to cancer besides age and sex. Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can trigger cancer growth. However, individuals without a smoking history and no alcohol intake can still have oral cancer. This is especially true for those with a family history of cancer.


Why Oral Cancer Screenings Are Vital

Oral cancer is the type of cancer originating in or around the mouth and throat. People of all ages are at risk, including non-smokers. Because oral cancer can pose little to no symptoms, one must receive an oral cancer screening from catching this potentially deadly condition as soon as possible. 

The American Cancer Society estimates 50,000 new oral or oropharyngeal cases a year, and nearly 10,000 die from the disease. The World Cancer Research Fund International usually lists oral cancer as one of the top 20 most common cancers. However, if caught early, optimal treatment can ensure a speedy recovery with few, if any, complications.

Who is at Risk for Oral Cancer?

Like any other cancer, everyone is susceptible to developing oral cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the average age of people diagnosed with oral cancer is 62. Although rare in children, about one-quarter of total mouth cancer patients are younger than 55.

The risk of developing oral cancer is twice as likely in men than in women. But other factors increase the likelihood of developing cancer, such as smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, chewing tobacco, family history of cancer, excessive sun exposure, and human papillomavirus (HPV). However, over 25 percent of all oral cancers affect people who do not smoke and occasionally drink alcohol.

Oral Cancer Screenings

Diagnosis of oral cancer is usually part of a routine dental exam with your dentist. They will look and feel an indication of lumps or irregular tissue changes in your neck, head, face, and oral cavity. If something looks suspicious, your dentist will order a biopsy.

An oral cancer screening is a quick and painless process. One has nothing to lose when opting for this screening.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Symptoms vary from individual to individual, mainly depending on the type of cancer and how long it has progressed.

Many may not even know they have oral cancer until early detection equipment indicates cancer cells are present.

However, some do notice symptoms before getting a diagnosis. Some symptoms may include:

  • Oral sores that get worse and won’t go away
  • Difficulty swallowing or chewing
  • Abnormal lumps in/around the mouth or neck
  • A lump-in-throat sensation that’s persistent or worsening with time
  • Tongue numbness or pain that persists
  • A consistent sore throat
  • Irregular patches in the mouth (often red or white)
  • Hoarseness in a voice that won’t go away
  • Loose and or lost teeth
  • General pain in mouth or throat

If you observe any of these indications, it is wise to contact your dentist and schedule an appointment to ensure everything is healthy.

Although your oral symptoms may not be linked to cancer, an oral cancer screening only takes a few minutes and provides ease of mind. Nevertheless, other causes for your oral-related symptoms can be appropriately diagnosed and treated by a dental professional.

Different Types of Oral Cancers

Erythroplakia: Red lesions in and around the mouth that tend to bleed if scraped. Often precancerous, they can develop into other cancers. A quarter of cases are already cancerous.

Leukoplakia: White lesions in or around the mouth that tend to bleed if scraped. Often precancerous, they can develop into other cancers. A quarter of cases are already cancerous.

Lymphoma: A type of oral cancer that develops in the lymph tissue and often causes enlarged lymph nodes.

Salivary gland carcinomas: Includes several subcategories of oral cancers that develop in minor salivary glands in the mouth and throat.

Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of oral cancer accounts for more than 90 percent of oral cancer. It consists of cancer cells that are flat and scale-like in arrangement and usually found in the mouth and throat.

Verrucous carcinoma: Slow-growing cancer found in about 5 percent of oral cancer patients that is rare to spread to other areas of the body.

Non-Cancerous Oral Concerns

Overall, oral screenings are essential to search for, diagnose, and or treat cancer before it begins, worsens, and takes over other parts of the body. Non-cancerous tumors that develop in the mouth and throat areas need to be surgically removed to reduce the chances of cancer developing.

Ways to reduce oral cancer risks include minimal alcohol intake, a healthy diet, limited tobacco usage, and sun exposure in moderation. Age, HPV infections, level of moral standing, and immunosuppression account for greater oral cancer risk.

How is Oral Cancer Treated?

Treatment for oral cancer includes surgery to eliminate cancerous growth and radiation therapy and chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Reduce the Risk of Oral Cancer

To reduce the chance of acquiring oral cancer, avoid smoking, and drink alcohol in moderation. A well-balanced diet will also help keep your body healthy.

Also, limit your sun exposure as much as possible, as repeated exposure increases cancer risk on the lip.

You can also conduct a self-examination at least once a month using a bright light and mirror to observe and feel your lips and the front of your gums. Examine all surfaces and feel for any unusual lumps in your oral cavity.

A routine checkup with your dentist is vital in detecting any symptoms that may appear, so ensure to schedule appointments at least twice a year. Regular checkups will enable the early detection of dental issues and oral cancer.

At Hawaii Family Dental, we care about your oral health and we’re on a mission to create healthy smiles for you and your family. Feel free to contact us for oral cancer screening in our various dental offices.

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