Updated: June 17, 2012 8:05AM
In the past decade, oncologists have noted an increase in cancers at the back of the tongue, in the tonsils and into the throat, especially in healthy, nonsmoking men.
More than 7,000 new cases of oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most are in men, and those who don’t use tobacco often find another common cause: the human papillomavirus, better known as HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says at least half of all sexually active people will get genital HPV at some time in their lives.
But certain strains of human papillomavirus also can live in the mouth, passed on through oral sex. The type of cancer it causes is more likely to be discovered by your dentist than your urologist or family practitioner.
Signs of head and neck cancers include weight loss, unexplained hoarseness, a sore throat that lasts more than two weeks, coughing up blood and a lump in the neck.
Five years ago, Jeff Husney discovered a lump in his neck eventually diagnosed as throat cancer. “I was watching my diet and nutrition closer as I was getting towards middle age,” he said. He never smoked, hardly drank, and exercised frequently.
When he initially was tested for HPV, the results were negative. The CDC says there are no HPV tests recommended for men because all are geared toward screening women for cervical cancer.
Husney called his results a false negative.
“HPV more than likely was the reason I had this cancer,” he said.
The good news, according to Dr. Brian Burkey, a Cleveland Clinic oncologist, is that HPV throat cancers are typically 90 percent curable, regardless of stage.
“Because of its epidemic proportions, it really could become a major health problem,” he said.
But a vaccine available now also could prevent it.
Gardasil was approved several years ago for young girls to prevent HPV infection. Now the CDC also recommends the vaccine for boys, ages 9 to 26.
Husney is encouraging his own sons to consider the vaccine because he remembers how difficult the cancer treatment was for him. He couldn’t eat, talk or swallow and needed a feeding tube to get his nutrients.
“It’s a very painful and challenging form of treatment,” Husney said. “Besides it being cancer, I would hope to spare my sons that path.”
Gannett News Service