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HPV linked to increasing number of head & neck cancer cases

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Posted at 3:35 PM, Apr 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-22 18:18:36-04

This article is the part of a monthly series of stories focused on cancer issues. Denver7 is proud to partner with the American Cancer Society, Cancer Support Community, Colorado Cancer Coalition and Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HealthONE to bring you these stories, tips and resources.

Cancer of the head and neck is a relatively rare form of cancer that develops from the lining (mucosa) of the mouth, sinuses, nose, and throat. Most commonly, people affected by head and neck cancer have a significant history of alcohol and tobacco use (smoking and/or chewing tobacco) and are older— aged 60-90 years.

Your oral cavity and portions of the throat, including the voicebox, those structures are subjected to damage by things like viruses and sun damage and, and other things like tobacco and alcohol," Dr. Andrew Nemechek, head and neck cancer surgeon at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Swedish said. "And so since all these structures are exposed to the outside, they're subject to developing tumors, especially malignant tumors."

During the last several decades, there has been a well-documented increase in cases among patients who do not have a history of tobacco and alcohol use, and who are much younger— some as young as in their 30s. While alcohol and tobacco are major risk factors for cancers of the head and neck, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention say about 70% of cancers in the oropharynx are linked to human papillomavirus (HPV).

What is HPV?

HPV is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection (STI).  Of those infected, most are asymptomatic but still may be able to transmit the virus. After infection, some people will clear the virus from their bodies. In other people, the virus remains latent within the tissues. Those patients with latent virus can develop oropharyngeal cancer, usually 15 to 30 years following initial infection.

"HPV causes chronic inflammation like other viruses do," said Dr. Nemechek. "And if you have chronic inflammation over many, many years, then those tissues seek to change or they change and they change in a cancerous way."

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

An unusual lump in the neck or sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal as expected. Other symptoms of head and neck cancer include changes to the voice (hoarseness); swallowing problems and/or pain with swallowing; persistent earache; bleeding in the nose, mouth, or throat; or continuous congestion. 

"It's very important, if those signs or symptoms persist for a few weeks, that you visit your [primary care] clinician," added Dr. Nemechek. "You have a heightened sense of urgency and a heightened sense of having the ability to to rule out something that might be problematic for you."

How can I reduce my risk for head and neck cancer?

The two greatest risk factors for most types of head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Limiting those factors can greatly reduce your risk, but there are other things you can do as well, like getting vaccinated for HPV and limiting your sun exposure.

"Always wear a sunscreen, always wear a hat, always wear sunglasses, and limit your time of doing outside or fitness activities in the middle of the day," encouraged Dr. Nemechek. "That's the most important thing that we can do."