Dr. Thomas Shellenberger is a surgical oncologist on staff at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Question: We often hear how human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to cervical cancer in women, but is it true that HPV is also associated with head and neck cancer?
Answer: HPV is a virus that is prevalent throughout the population. In fact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is transmitted through saliva and direct contact and has been implicated in cervical cancer in women for many years. However, in the last 5-10 years there has been a new association between HPV and head and neck cancers – or oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the throat (primarily the tonsils and base of tongue).
Over the last several decades, cancers of the throat have largely been associated with smoking and found in people in their 60s and 70s. A trend over the last decade has revealed that younger patients (men and women), often in their 40s or 30s and with no previous history of smoking, are developing oropharyngeal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Since HPV is transmitted through saliva, the deep folds and structures of the tonsils and throat are easy havens for the virus to hunker down and hide from the immune system – and, in some cases, lead to cancer.
The primary symptom of opharyngeal cancer is a lump in the neck. Any lump in the neck that doesn’t go away in a couple of weeks should be evaluated by a healthcare provider. A biopsy of the lump can be taken to determine whether the lump is cancerous or not. Treatment for HPV-related head and neck cancer includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Usually, some combination of two of these treatments is used.
Although there are screening tests that can be done to detect HPV infections in certain parts of the body, there is no screening test or exam that has been developed to detect current or previous oral HPV infections. For this reason, it is important to be aware of any changes in your throat and neck area. Conduct regular self-examinations and contact your healthcare provider if you detect a lump or if you have any concerns. As with most cancers, the earlier the detection, the better the prognosis.