There’s an alarming new study on the link between oral health and the risk of pancreatic cancer, specifically among African American women.
In the study, researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine analyzed data from The Black Women’s Health Study, which enrolled 59,000 black women starting in 1995, ranging from ages 21 to 69, and began collecting and updating data every other year. The Health Study contains data on cancer and smoking, alcohol, weight and other health related variables. African American people are 50-90 percent more likely to get pancreatic cancer than any other group in the United States.Read More
“We need to understand the genetic makeup of the bacteria in their mouth, to understand how this affects their immune system, in a way that puts them at risk for cancer,” says Dr. Allyson Ocean, Medical Oncologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.
This study is really about detecting patterns that are related to cancer. “We don’t know that oral hygiene was the direct cause of their cancer, but what’s interesting is that they are seeing more patterns emerge,” says Dr. Ocean.
But it’s possible, according to Dr. Ocean, that a study like this one could lead to more research, which would help doctors understand what it is about bacteria in the mouth that links it to cancer. “Nowadays, we hear a lot of patients having their blood and tumor sequenced for genomics, but we are actually now in the era where we are doing genetic testing on people’s stool, which is genomics of their bacteria,” she says. “So I think that’s where we might be able to help develop ways to predict risk. If researchers can figure out the gene signature of someone’s bacteria, maybe that will eventually give us a clue as to what’s causing cancer.”
The study is part of a popular movement toward trying to figure out what the influence of bacteria in the gut is on cancer risk. “There is a lot of ongoing research on the bacteria that lives in our gut, and cancer,” says Dr. Ocean. “The flora that is in our gut can influence the way someone’s immune system works, and how their immune system reacts to cancer cells developing. And I believe that is where this study is heading, because oral bacteria is also the same bacteria that’s in your gut. Your mouth is just an extension of your intestinal tract. So most likely the bacteria in your mouth is the same bacteria in your esophagus and other parts of the intestines.”
According to Dr. Ocean, not enough people are aware of the increased risk of pancreatic cancer in African American people. “Pancreatic cancer is a more common disease in African American people in general, and that’s not a well known fact. People may be pre-disposed to pancreatic cancer because it runs in their family, or if they are diabetic, or if they are African American— these are all known risk factors.”