Cancers of the head and neck account for just 3 percent of all cancers in the United States, but there are many types, and the overall number is spiking among middle-aged men.
Over the past decade, oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the mouth and pharynx) have increased more than 400 percent. The increase is primarily attributable to human papillomavirus, according to the National Cancer Institute. There are more than 200 types of HPV viruses and according to some estimates, 90 percent of the U.S. population will experience and HPV infection at some time. Many people never show any symptoms and most HPV varieties cause no serious health problems, but a handful of high-risk types can cause cancer.
The increase in these cancers prompted the creation of a head and neck program at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. The program is tasked with targeting the problem.
“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 says. “The greatest increase in HPV-caused head-and-neck cancer is seen among men 55 to 64 years old.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still attributes tobacco and alcohol use as primary factors in mouth and throat cancers.
“It is unclear if having HPV alone is sufficient to cause oropharyngeal cancers, or if other factors (such as smoking or chewing tobacco) interact with HPV to cause these cancers. More research is needed to understand all the factors leading to oropharyngeal cancers,” reports the CDC.
Thyroid cancer is another head and neck cancer affecting about 60,000 people annually. People exposed to excess radiation have an increased risk of thyroid cancer as do people with specific genetic traits.
Patients who develop cancers of the head, neck and throat typically show no symptoms during early stages. As the cancer progresses, here are some additional warning signs:
- A mouth sore that fails to heal or that bleeds easily
- A white or red patch in the mouth that doesn’t go away
- Pain in the neck or ears
- A lump, thickening or soreness in the mouth, throat or tongue
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing food
Savvides explains that early detection and treatment of head, neck and throat cancers are critical because many of today’s victims are younger and healthier. “They have decades of productive life ahead of them.”
Fortunately, effective treatments are available, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination, depending upon the cancer’s stage “Recent data suggests that people with malignancies of the head and neck, treated at cancer centers that care for a high number of these patients have better survival rates than at medical centers that don’t specialize in head and neck cancer,” Savvides notes. “A specialized head and neck program can serve as a catalyst to bring all different medical specialists together to work on behalf of our patients’ best interests.”
There is also an effective vaccine to combat the HPV type primarily responsible for oropharyngeal cancer. Today, it is recommended for all 11- and 12-year-old girls and boys or for males and females into their mid-20s who have not been vaccinated.
If you would like to talk with a counselor about your potential risk factors, you can contact an expert at The University of Arizona Cancer Center at St. Joseph’s.