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The Cancer Threat You May Not Know About

Victor Schweitzer, MD Cancer

What does the most common sexually transmitted infection have to do with cancer in the throat and mouth area? The answer is: much more than you might think.

Even if you feel like you’ve heard everything there is to know about cancer, there may still be a few things that surprise you. For instance, did you know you can “catch” cancer from a virus? While it’s true that the vast majority of cancers start with some trigger that results in uncontrolled growth in abnormal cells, there are some cancers that are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives. Most of the time, HPV goes away on its own; at times, though, it results in conditions that require medical treatment.

Unfortunately, HPV is also linked with cancer. Many people are aware that cervical cancer can be caused by HPV, but the virus can also result in cancer elsewhere in the body, mostly in the genital areas.

What might come as the biggest surprise is that HPV can also cause oral cancer—particularly cancer of the pharynx, the structure that connects the nose and mouth to the esophagus. HPV-related oral cancer is increasing in incidence and is starting to affect younger people more often.

It is important to note that there are many different types of HPV and that only a very small number of those types have the potential to cause cancer. It is also important to realize that, because of HPV, you might develop oral cancer even if you’re not a smoker. You should also be aware that a person can carry HPV in his or her body for many years without knowing it.

For these reasons, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the symptoms of oral cancer, which include sores anywhere in the mouth, including the gums, tongue or back of the throat; a sore throat that doesn’t go away; or a lump in the neck (enlarged lymph node) that doesn’t go away or gets larger.

If you find yourself with any of these symptoms, see your primary care physician immediately. Your dentist can also help to determine if your symptoms need to have further attention. As with most other cancers, the earlier oral cancer is caught, the higher the survivability rate is—and the lower the chance that treatment will require disfiguring surgery.

One bright spot of good news is that oral cancers caused by HPV tend to be more treatable than those that come from smoking, chewing tobacco and other more conventional causes. Additionally, the science of cancer treatment continues to improve in ways that make the disease more survivable, with fewer long-term issues.

For instance, a new machine at Simi Valley Hospital—where I work—uses a system called TomoTherapy that helps to precisely target a tumor while limiting exposure to healthy tissue and reducing side effects. (The first person treated with this new machine at the hospital was, in fact, an HPV oral cancer patient, although it is used with a wide variety of cancers, including breast, prostate, lung, rectal and others.)

Of course, cancer prevention should always be the top priority. An HPV vaccine is available and, while it tends to be thought of more as a vaccine for young women to prevent cervical cancer, the rising incidence of HPV-related oral cancer should put the medical community and parents on notice that the vaccine is also important to consider for young men. Typically, this vaccine is administered before a person becomes sexually active, around age 11 or 12.

In addition, to prevent the more conventional type of oral cancer, it’s important to stop smoking—or never start in the first place—and avoid excessive alcohol use. Your doctor can give you more details about ways to prevent oral cancer and whether or not a vaccine is right for your child.

Victor Schweitzer, MD, is a radiation oncologist at Simi Valley Hospital.