New Culprit for Head and Neck Cancers

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The most common risk factor for development of head and neck cancers continues to be tobacco and alcohol use, but in the last few years a new culprit has appeared on the scene: the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is now responsible for more than 70 percent of the cases of oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed in the United States.

I suspect that percentage holds true here at AdventHealth Cancer Institute as well, says Henry Ho, MD, otolaryngologist and medical director, head and neck program. Nationwide, HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancer is projected to be greater in frequency than HPV-caused cervical cancer by 2020. That is roughly 20,000 cases annually.

Oropharyngeal cancer affects the tonsillar tissue at the base of tongue and sides of the throat.

Dr. Ho notes that there are many types of HPV and only some strains lead to cancer. Even people who get the cancer-causing type of HPV, the likelihood of them developing cancer is very low.

Cancers caused by HPV are showing up in younger people than the traditional head and neck cancer patients. Head and neck cancers not caused by HPV are usually in the older age group and associated with smoking.

Head and neck cancers start with abnormal changes in the cells lining the surfaces of the throat or mouth. These cancers sometimes present with a neck mass non-healing mouth sores. Some patients experience pain, hoarseness or trouble swallowing.

Treatment options for head and neck cancers include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of these. Treatment also depends on the location and size of the cancer, and the patients general health. Dr. Ho says certain areas are more appropriate for surgery, while others are better treated with a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Early diagnosis is key for all head and neck cancers, although HPV-induced cancers seem to have a better prognosis than throat cancers not HPV related.

Fortunately, when caught early, most head and neck cancer is curable. This is especially true of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer which has about an 80 percent cure rate, he says.

Dr. Ho advises paying attention to symptoms, such as sores, lumps, hoarseness or a neck mass that last more than two or three weeks. To reduce the risk of developing head and neck cancers, stop using tobacco of any kind (including chewing tobacco and snuff), reduce alcohol consumption, and practice good oral hygiene. Regular dental checkups can help with early detection.

More than 50,000 people will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer this year, Ho says And don't hesitate to be evaluated for any suspicious signs or symptoms of head and neck cancer.

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