Poor oral health ‘could lower survival rates of head and neck cancer’

There is a strong link between oral health and survival among people diagnosed with head and neck cancer. 

This is according to a new international study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The research team examined records of approximately 2,500 patients from eight countries to carry out state-of-the-art statistical analyses.

Head and neck cancer patients were asked to self-report details of their oral health and hygiene. This included gum bleeding, tooth brushing frequency and mouthwash use – as well as the number of natural teeth and frequency of dental visits they had during a 10-year period prior to their cancer diagnosis.

Survival differences

Findings showed that those who had frequent dental visits – more than five visits in a reported decade –  had higher overall survival at five and 10 years (74% and 60%, respectively) compared to those with no dental visits (54% at five years and 32% at 10 years).

This was most significant among people with cancers of the oropharynx. This consists of the structures in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue, tonsils and soft palate.

Having no natural remaining teeth was associated with a 15% lower five year overall survival compared to those with more than 20 natural teeth. Survival differences of less than 5% were found for patient-reported gum bleeding, tooth brushing and mouthwash use.

Road of prevention

Carole Fakhry, professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research, called the findings ‘important’.

She said: ‘This is an important study that highlights the interplay between oral health and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma and overall survival.

‘While we seek biomarkers to predict which patient will do well, this study points out features of a history and examination that are associated with survival. Additionally, this may lead us down the road of prevention of these cancers.’

The study was led by researchers at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and UNC Adams School of Dentistry, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, Florida. It was also in partnership with the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) consortium.

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