LiveSmart: Male Over 40? Be Aware of the HPV and Cancer Connection

[This piece was written by Duncan Savage, MD, a radiation oncologist with St. Peter’s Hospital Cancer Care Center.]

Middle aged men are being diagnosed with head and neck cancer at a historically high rate, and studies point to the major culprit being the human papillomavirus (HPV).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the single biggest cause of cervical cancer and certain types of head and neck cancers called oropharyngeal cancers. HPV is associated with 9,000 cases of head and neck cancers each year in the United States, and is four times more common in men than in women.

While regular screening with Pap and HPV tests have reduced rates of cervical cancer, rates of oral cancer are growing, particularly among men over the age of 40.

Most people don’t even know they have the virus, as HPV initially doesn’t cause any symptoms. Most people get over the infection and never even know they had an HPV infection. But in some, HPV remains in the infected tissues and, years later, causes changes in the cells that can cause a tumor to grow.

Studies have revealed a higher lifetime number of sexual partners carries an increased risk of being infected with HPV. Smoking and tobacco use are linked with the development of head and neck cancers that are not associated with HPV infection.

Symptoms to look for include:

  • A sore throat that doesn’t go away after several weeks
  • Difficulty in swallowing, or pain when swallowing
  • Persistent ear pain
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jaw
  • Unusual pain or bleeding in the mouth

Early diagnosis is associated with the best outcomes, so talk to your physician or dentist at your annual checkup. A complete examination of your head and neck as well as a discussion of your risk factors is essential.

At St. Peter’s Hospital Cancer Care Center, we take pride in offering a treatment approach that is patient-centered and supported by a multidisciplinary team for treatment planning. St. Peter’s Hospital was named one of America’s Best Hospitals for Cancer Care by the Women’s Choice Award in 2017 and 2018.

At St. Peter’s, our specially trained radiation oncologists work in collaboration with medical oncologists, surgeons and other cancer care specialists to effectively combine radiation therapy with chemotherapy and other modalities for the best possible outcomes.

If you have questions, please call St. Peter’s Hospital Cancer Line at 518-525-1547.

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