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The virus that keeps head and neck cancers on the rise

This article is Sponsored by Dignity Health

Where does cancer come from, and how can it be avoided? This is a question scientists are trying hard to answer. But oral cancers that occur in the head and neck are on the rise and the root of the cause is not what you might think.

Oropharyngeal cancers happen in the throat and mouth, or pharynx. Tobacco users have a long history of being at risk for oral cancers, but you can still be in danger even if you don’t smoke or chew tobacco. In fact, there’s a common virus that research shows is causing a 400 percent increase in cancers of the head and neck.

Human papillomavirus, an unseen infection

This virus is called human papillomavirus (HPV), the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Although this virus often shows no obvious symptoms, nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives, even if they only have sex with one partner, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 9,000 Americans are diagnosed with oropharynx cancers that may result from oral HPV each year. More research is being conducted about the specific causes of HPV, but existing research shows that HPV may manifest itself or cause problems anywhere between weeks, months and years after the original exposure.

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Although those with HPV may not be aware of the infection, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of certain cancers linked to oral HPV. Here are some of the most common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Persistent sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Recurring sores in the mouth
  • Neck and ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Mouth pain and discoloration

If you begin to notice or experience any of the above symptoms, contact your doctor to discuss being tested for HPV, as well as receiving additional oral cancer screenings.

Prevention and treatment

Because it’s not always possible to pinpoint the origin or even detect the infection of HPV, the best way to avoid it is by using condoms and dental dams during sex, including oral sex.

HPV vaccines do exist but were largely created to prevent cancers linked to genital HPV, such as cervical cancer; however, it is possible that the vaccine could prevent oral HPV infections since its purpose is to avoid initial infection of HPV. Research has not reached a point yet where scientists can guarantee that the HPV vaccine will prevent cancers linked to the oral form of the virus.

There is hope for those who may have already been infected with the virus. Because of the large increase in cancers of the neck and head, The University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center has created a specific treatment program.

“We believe there’s an unmet need,” says Dr. Panos Savvides, section leader of the head and neck program at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s. “Unlike the average head-and-neck-cancer sufferer in the past, whose risk factors included a lifetime of smoking and drinking, today’s patients are a full decade younger on average.”

Savvides continues, “The greatest increase in HPV-caused head-and-neck cancer is seen among men 55-64 years old.”

For those seeking treatment or screenings for these specific types of cancer, The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s offers a range of treatment options and specialized care.

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Visit us at DignityHealth.org/UACC to learn about our disease-specific cancer treatment programs and supportive care services at our downtown Phoenix cancer center.