There were 53,670 new cases of pancreatic cancer across the United States in 2017, according to estimates from the National Cancer Institute. During that same year, an estimated 43,090 people died from the disease.
While there are many established risk factors, studies are showing that pancreatic cancer causes may include poor oral health.
What Is Pancreatic Cancer?
Located behind the stomach but in front of the spine, the pancreas is an organ that includes an exocrine gland (which secretes enzymes that help digest food) and an endocrine gland (which produces insulin that is vital in controlling the body’s blood sugar levels). Cancer occurs when the individual cells of the pancreas begin to grow abnormally and form tumors. These tumors may be cancerous or benign, but the Cancer Treatment Centers of America notes that 95 percent of cancerous pancreatic tumors stem from the exocrine cells that produce digestive juices.
Because there aren’t definitive symptoms in its early stages, this cancer often goes undetected. And when symptoms do present themselves, they often mimic other illnesses. To complicate things further, the pancreas is well hidden behind other organs, making it difficult to pinpoint the origin of symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include unintentional weight loss, a yellowing of eyes or skin, pain in the upper abdomen that radiates to the back, unexplained fatigue or depression and newly diagnosed diabetes. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Pancreatic cancer is ultimately detected through various tests and imaging that shows the pancreas and surrounding organs.
Periodontal Disease and Pancreatic Cancer Link
For many years, researchers have been studying the link between oral health and cancer, but more specifically, the connection between periodontal disease (an inflammation of the gum tissue and surrounding bone) and cancer. Several of these studies are summarized in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology, which explains that periodontal disease leads to the growth and migration of cells containing cytokines, prostaglandins and other enzymes, which can cause cancer to evolve in various organs.
A 2007 study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute concluded that men diagnosed with periodontal disease had a 63 percent higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer than those who didn’t have periodontal disease. One possible reason is that the chronic inflammation of periodontal disease raises the level of systemic inflammation throughout the body, promoting the growth of cancerous cells. In addition, people with periodontal disease typically have high levels of oral bacteria and carcinogenic nitrosamines, possibly setting the stage for pancreatic cancer.
Other Pancreatic Cancer Risks
There are a number of factors that could potentially increase your chances of developing pancreatic cancer, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Discuss any of the following risks with your doctor:
- Age (90 percent of pancreatic cancers occur in people over 55)
- Gender (Men are more likely to be affected, for an unknown reason)
- Obesity, diabetes or chronic pancreatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Helicobacter pylori infection
- Tobacco use
- Genetic factors involving an inherited gene
Although there are many pancreatic cancer causes and risks, you can avoid the cancer risk that periodontal disease imposes by implementing a good oral hygiene routine (brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and flossing daily), as well as by visiting your dentist for regular checkups and cleanings. Smokers who break the habit will not only greatly reduce their probability of getting pancreatic cancer, they will have healthier teeth and gums—allowing them to keep their teeth for a lifetime.