Part 1: Build the Microscopic Army in Your Mouth to Fight Oral Cancer and Improve Dental Health

Oral Cancer Is No Match for a Healthy Oral Microbiome

Fostering a healthy oral microbiome can fight oral and other cancers. That’s nothing to say for its benefits on cavities, root canal infections, and gum disease. Your friendly bacteria protect you from disease, fight tumors, cool off inflammation, and boost your immune system.

Who wouldn’t want this army of microscopic warriors on their side?!

In this two-part blog, you will learn that cancers can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. One of the best defenses against oral cancers (and other cancers) is a healthy and strong oral microbiome.

What is Oral Cancer?

You or someone you know may have had oral cancer. Or maybe mouth and throat cancer aren’t really on your radar. However, oral cancers affect many people. In the United States alone, 145 people are diagnosed with oral cancer every day. Each hour someone dies from oral cancer.

Oral cancer includes:

  • Mouth cancer (including the lips)
  • Tongue cancer
  • Tonsil cancer
  • Throat cancer

Oral cancer symptoms are:

  • A mouth sore that doesn’t heal
  • A lump or growth
  • A white or red patch on the inside of the mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Mouth pain
  • Ear pain
  • Painful or difficult swallowing

The known causes of oral cancer are tobacco use, heavy drinking, and infection with HPV-16 (human papillomavirus version 16). HPV-16 is a common sexually transmitted virus; the same one that can cause cervical cancer in women. Poor oral hygiene is another top risk factor for oral cancer.

Treatments for oral cancer include surgery and radiation. Occasionally chemotherapy is used to treat oral cancer. Finding it early is the key to a good outcome: 80-90% of people will survive. Unfortunately, most cases are found very late. That leads to a high death rate of 43% in the five years following diagnosis.

An Imbalanced Microbiome Can Cause Cancer

How often do you hear about cancer being caused by a microorganism? Not too often. Yet 15.4% of cancers are believed to be caused by microorganisms.1 And it might be more. Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium that causes ulcers and gastric cancer put microbial causes of cancer back on the map. The link was ever more clear when H. pylori was classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization.1 Viruses can cause cancer, such as HPV, mentioned above. And many bacteria have been implicated in cancers.

If microbes can cause cancer, then a strong microbial defense is your best protection. Enter the oral microbiome.

The oral microbiome is made up of all the microorganisms in your mouth including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and bacteriophages, as well as their genetic material. Most of these organisms do no harm and even protect or benefit your health. A small percentage can harm you.

If your oral microbiome is strong and healthy, then harmful bacteria, viruses, or fungi can’t hurt you. However, if the oral microbiome is weak, then bad microbes can rise to power and take over. They can cause oral dysbiosis and cancer. For example, HPV is necessary to cause certain cancers. However, only 0.3 – 1.3% of HPV infections turn into cancer. The body seems to clear the other 98%. Scientists believe that a healthy microbiome may prevent HPV from causing cancer, while an unhealthy microbiome might make it worse.2

Next week in Part 2, dysbiosis will be explored along with avenues to reduce your risk of oral cancer due to dysbiosis.


  1. Zhao H, Chu M, Huang Z, et al. Variations in oral microbiota associated with oral cancer. Scientific reports. 2017;7(1):11773.
  2. Vyshenska D, Lam KC, Shulzhenko N, Morgun A. Interplay between viruses and bacterial microbiota in cancer development. Semin Immunol. 2017;32:14-24.


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Cass Nelson-Dooley MS