Head and neck cancers linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) are on the rise, and vaccinating all children — boys and girls — could help slow the trend.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is best known as a common sexually transmitted infection that has been linked to cervical cancer in young women. But, what many people may not realize is that it is a leading cause of head and neck cancers as well.
Focus sat down with head and neck surgeons Derrick T. Lin, MD, FACS, and Jeremy D. Richmon, MD, to discuss HPV’s link to head and neck cancer. They talk about its rising prevalence and steps that can be taken earlier in life to prevent problems.
Head and Neck Cancer – Not Just for Smokers and Drinkers
For many years, the typical profile of someone with head and neck cancer was someone who smoked and, in particular, those who combined smoking with heavy drinking.
Now, it appears that folks who’ve never touched a cigarette are also being diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck at alarming rates — and the culprit in many of those cases is HPV.
“Over the past two decades, we’ve seen more and more head and neck cancers with HPV markers in them,” said Dr. Lin, director of the Head and Neck Oncology Division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. ”There are ways to prevent this disease, but not enough people are using them.”
Signs of HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancer
HPV is now the most common cause of oropharyngeal cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for approximately 70 percent of all cases.
The locations of tumors tagged with HPV often appear in the tonsils and/or base of the tongue first. The most common symptom of an HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is a painless upper neck mass without any other symptoms. Typically, the neck tumors can be large while the primary site in the tonsil or base of the tongue can be very small and asymptomatic.
“Head and neck cancers are found in various locations — from the nose to the voice box — but those caused by HPV are located at the base of tongue and tonsils where the virus can sit dormant for years before manifesting,” said Dr. Richmon, director of Robotic Surgery at Mass. Eye and Ear. “Therefore, symptoms may come at an unexpected time.”
Other symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer may include a long-lasting sore throat, earaches, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, pain when swallowing and unexplained weight loss.
For some, the virus will clear on its own and cause no harm, but for others, it may eventually convert into cancer. Consult a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms as catching it early often leads to a better prognosis.
Who Should Be Vaccinated? And When?
The good news is that HPV vaccinations are available. Guidelines recommend that everyone, ages 11 to 21 (up to 26 for females), should be vaccinated. The vaccination can also be started as early as age nine.
Although it is commonly thought to only be available to females, the vaccination is also important for males as they are more likely than females to have head and neck cancers as a result of HPV.
Ideally, people should be vaccinated before potential exposure to the virus. For those who have already been infected with one or more HPV types, they can still get protection from other strains with the vaccine.
Drs. Lin and Richmon highly encourage anyone with a persistent neck mass, especially if accompanied with throat pain or irritation, to get their symptoms checked out by a physician.
About Our Experts
Dr. Derrick Lin and Dr. Jeremy Richmon specialize in head and neck cancer and microvascular surgery. Both are experts in minimally invasive robotic techniques in the head and neck, which are commonly used on cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer. They see patients at Mass. Eye and Ear, Main Campus.