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The Surprising Link Between HPV and Head and Neck Cancer

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

Behind your bright eyes, big smile and unique voice are a lot of very important body parts; ones that help you sense the world, enjoy your favorite meal, get energy to thrive, communicate with others, and simply make you, you.

For just a second, think about how important that is to protect.

Which is why we’re raising awareness about head and neck cancer by talking about the surprising link between cancers that affect the oropharynx (the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) and the human papilloma virus (HPV).

The Link

According to the National Cancer Institute, an astonishing 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are likely caused by HPV, with over half of the cases traced to HPV type 16. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year, HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers affect more than 3,100 women and 12,638 men.

HPV

HPV is a group of more than 200 related viruses, which can be further grouped into low- or high-risk cancer-causing categories.  HPV is very common among adults, and most HPV types are not concerning. In fact, the National Cancer Institute states that only about a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified as potentially cancer-causing, and only two types of HPV (16 and 18) are responsible for most HPV-caused cancer. It’s also important to note that most people who have even the high-risk HPV types do not get cancer.

What You Can Do

Many head and neck cancers, especially those of the HPV type, can be detected early, cured successfully, and possibly prevented entirely by doing these three things:

1. Talk to your doctor and dentist about your risk factors for head and neck cancer.

Most people do not know if they have HPV, more less a high-risk type that could increase cancer risk. This makes talking to your doctor about head and neck cancer prevention so important.

If you have other risk factors, like a family history, lifestyle habits such as smoking or drinking alcohol, or are approaching the median age of onset for HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers (62 for women and 59 for men), your doctor might advise a screening and prevention plan.

2. Know the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer.
Head and neck cancers start with abnormal changes in the cells lining the surfaces of the throat or mouth. Since most people are not looking in their mouth, at their tonsils and at the back of their throat regularly, it is important to see trained medical professionals who can find these early tissue changes that you might not notice. 

You dentist and primary care doctor can perform head and neck cancer screenings at routine exams, looking for any suspicious changes to your oral tissues, masses or enlarged lymph nodes. It’s also important to be aware of the symptoms of head and neck cancers, and make an appointment to see your primary care doctor for an evaluation if you experience any of the following:

  • A persistent sore throat
  • A mouth sore that does not heal
  • Trouble swallowing, opening your mouth fully or moving your tongue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent ear pain
  • Any lump in the back of the mouth, throat or neck
  • Changes in your voice
  • Unusual cough, especially one that produces blood

3. Live a lifestyle that promotes health and wellbeing.
Protecting your body is hard work; you must make conscious choices daily to promote your long-term health and wellbeing. But, if you think about the reward (life!) it just might be worth all the effort.

To reduce your risk of head and neck cancer:

  • Avoid alcohol and all tobacco/smoking-related products
  • Eat a diet rich in nutrient dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables
  • Seek routine evaluations from your dentist and primary care physician

Click here to learn more about head and neck cancer.