Throat, mouth, lip and tongue cancers in the past were largely seen as a result of smoking, chewing tobacco and cigar use. Recent studies, however, have shown that the existence of the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is the leading precursor and fastest-growing cause of these throat and mouth cancers. HPV is already the main perpetrator of cervical cancer in women, leading medical professionals to consider HPV as the most prevalent and one of the more dangerous sexually transmitted diseases.
Recent studies on various cancers of the mouth and throat have shown that the dangerous versions of oropharyngeal cancer which come from smoking behavior often cause easily-recognized symptoms such as sore throat and difficulty swallowing. Oropharyngeal cancers from HPV, however, show these symptoms less often, and are more often diagnosed when patients come in with lumps in their necks from the growing tumors.
The doctors involved in the research were the first to attempt to separate the two types of oropharyngeal cancers based on cause. The study looked at a relatively small group of 88 oncology patients who had cancers of the soft palate, tongue, throat and tonsils between 2008 and 2013. They found that 71 percent of sufferers had the HPV version of the cancer. These numbers appear to be up in recent years.
From the records studied, of the patients who had the HPV version of the cancer, 28 percent complained of sore throat and 10 percent reported difficulty with swallowing. In comparison, of the patients who suffered from other forms of the cancer, such as from smoking, over 50 percent reported sore throats, and 41 percent complained of difficulty swallowing. Lending evidence to the study, half of the HPV group had lumps in their necks, while only 18 percent of the HPV-negative group showed similar lumps.
HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are on the rise, with 8,400 new cases per year in the U.S., mostly within younger populations who have no history of smoking. HPV is now the leading cause of these throat and mouth cancers. Many researchers believe changes in sexual practices may be contributing to this trend.
Doctors caution that not all lumps in the neck will necessary indicate a cancer formation, saying that people who notice such growths should see their doctors for a diagnosis. They also state that HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are less aggressive and easier to treat than those caused by smoking and other sources, so the fact that this type of cancer is becoming the most common throat and mouth cancer actually comes with a silver lining.
Oral HPV affects approximately seven percent of Americans, though only one subtype of the virus, HPV-16, is known to cause this type of cancer. Many people with oral HPV fight it off without knowing they ever had an infection. Only a relatively minor portion of the population seem susceptible to harboring the virus for long periods, and of those cases, only a very small percentage carry a strain of the virus which causes cancer. The reasons for these different responses to the virus are as yet unknown.
Another bit of good news is that there are vaccines for HPV. The CDC recommends vaccinations for all girls ages 11 to 12 and boys ages 13 to 21. Girls and women younger than age 26 who have not yet been vaccinated are encouraged to catch up on these shots to avoid infection. The two main vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, work on genital and anal versions of the virus, though studies are ongoing regarding the breadth of their effectiveness against the oral strains of HPV.
The leading cause of cancers of the throat and mouth have long been thought to be cigarette and cigar smoking and the long-term use of chewing tobaccos, but these causes have taken a back seat to HPV. Awareness of this fact has allowed doctors and researchers to target these cancers and to learn more about their causes and differing symptoms. The hope is that better treatments, vaccines, and possible cures will result from this growing knowledge base.
By Kat Turner