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Oropharyngeal Cancer is on the rise, and HPV may be to blame

March 20, 2015

More than 43,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

These cancers are typically categorized as head and neck cancers. They include the following subsites: tonsils, base of tongue, soft palate and pharynx. Unfortunately, oropharyngeal cancer has become more prevalent in recent years, and some experts say that human papillomavirus (HPV) may be to blame.

HPV, a sexually-transmitted infection passed on through skin-to-skin contact, is . However, it has tripled the number of oropharyngael cancer cases in the U.S. in the last 20 years. And by 2020, HPV will lead to more oropharyngneal cancer than cervical cancer cases across the country, according to research in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S., so anyone engaging in sexual activity should be aware of and understand all the health risks associated with this disease, including oropharynx cancer.

Here are some facts about the link between HPV and orophayrnx cancer, symptoms to watch out for, treatment options and some tips about what you can do to safeguard your health.

Link Between HPV & Oropharynx Cancer

Oropharynx cancers linked to HPV usually occur on the base of tongue, tonsils and soft palate.

More men than women are diagnosed with HPV-related cancers, and according to recent research, about 60 percent of people with oropharynx cancer also have HPV.

One of the biggest challenges with HPV-related oropharynx cancers is that they are more difficult to detect than tobacco or smoking-related cancers. The symptoms, such as a sore throat or a persistent cough, aren’t as apparent to someone who is developing the disease and may be confused with other illnesses. Due to this, many people will present with involvement of lymph nodes as the presenting sign and thus have advanced disease.

If you notice these symptoms or other consistent symptoms, such as painful chewing, difficulty swallowing, numbness in the mouth or lips, and a mass in your neck that has lasted for weeks, visit a doctor as soon as possible.

Prevention & Detection

Though there aren’t any tests to screen for HPV infections in the tonsils, throat or tongue, your doctor can do an oral cancer screening test or a visual exam to assess your symptoms. Your doctor also may ask about your oral health history to get information about symptoms that he or she is unable to detect during a clinical exam. If oropharynx cancer is in fact present, your doctor likely will perform a biopsy to specifically diagnose the problem and also to determine whether the cancer is linked to HPV.

As with any health condition, prevention can catch the disease at a treatable stage before it progresses. You should get a thorough head and neck exam during your annual doctor’s visit. This may pinpoint any changes that could indicate a more serious health issue.

And since sexual activity causes HPV, the only foolproof way to prevent HPV-related cancers is to abstain from sexual activity. While this may not be a practical approach, there are HPV vaccines that can help to lower the likelihood of getting this disease. However, the jury is still out on whether the vaccine also can reduce the incidence of HPV-related cancers once the person has already been exposed to the virus.

The survival rate for oropharynx cancer can be as high as 80-90 percent if it is caught and treated early. Those cancers that are found to be HPV related have an improved prognosis when compared with patients who have orpharyngeal cancers as a result of smoking. If you have soreness, numbness or a mass in your head and neck area, please don’t wait to see a doctor. Getting evaluated sooner rather than later could just save your life.

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