Head and Neck Cancer from HPV

Posted on: April 2, 2015

Dr-Christine-Chung-Radiologist - Copy

By Christine Chung, MD

My patient was a successful, 40-year old Caucasian surgeon with newly diagnosed throat cancer. On this gray day in January, he sat in a chair in my clinic, upset and confused. As a non-smoker who drank only occasionally, he thought that he had an extremely low risk of getting this type of cancer, yet his disease had started in his tonsils and had quickly spread to the lymph nodes in his neck.   So why, he wanted to know, did he have cancer? The traditional stereotype of a head and neck cancer patient is a 70 year old down-on-his-luck alcoholic who smokes two packs a day. But there is a different group of head and neck patients – they are Caucasian heterosexual men in their late 30s, 40s, and early 50s, who are often economically stable. This group develops cancer from HPV, a sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus. HPV is extremely common, and most sexually active people will be infected during their lifetimes. Most people’s immune systems rid their body of the infection without any problems. However a small number of people develop asymptomatic chronic infections that can develop into cancer later in life – sometimes decades later. HPV is associated with cancers of the tonsil and the base of tongue. HPV also causes cervical cancer. Cancers of the head and neck are relatively uncommon, but the incidence of HPV-associated cancer is steadily increasing. In the late 1980s, only 16% of head and neck cancers were associated with HPV, while HPV is currently associated with 70% of cases in North America. The cancer starts in the tonsil or the base of tongue, which is located at the back of the throat. The cancer may be very small but can spread quickly to the lymph nodes in the neck. There is no good screening method for this disease, so a person should seek medical attention if there is a new neck mass, hoarseness, or persistent ear pain. Vaccines have been developed to prevent HPV infections, and vaccination is recommended for 11-12 year old girls and boys. While the vaccine was initially developed to help prevent cervical cancer in girls, researchers hope that it may help prevent future cases of head and neck cancer in boys as well. Cancers caused by HPV infection are treated the same way as non-HPV head and neck cancers, with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. However, these patients often have a better prognosis, and a better survival rate. Dr. Chung is a Radiation Oncologist with Diablo Valley Oncology & Hematology Medical Group. She sees patients in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley and can be reached at 925-825-8878.  Attend an educational program on April 22, 2015, 6-8pm at the Cancer Support Community in Walnut Creek: “The Many Faces of Head and Neck Cancer” will feature a panel of medical experts who will discuss the most current information regarding risks factors (including HPV), treatment options, nutrition and survivorship. To register call: 925-677-5041. As part of national Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week, Dr. Arash Mohebati from Walnut Creek Surgical Associates is offering FREE visual screening on April 16. By appointment only – please call 925-933-0984. Tags: