Human Papillomavirus (HPV) in Head and Neck Cancer

July 25, 2014 Joseph C. Sniezek

Cancer of the oropharynx (throat) has undergone a drastic and dramatic change over the last decade.  In the past, most throat cancers were linked with prolonged cigarette smoking and alcohol use.  Now, the occurrence of throat cancer is rising and 80-90% is likely caused by an infection with Human Papillomavirus (HPV).  Many high-profile personalities, including actor Michael Douglas, have recently revealed that they have experienced HPV-related throat cancer.

What causes HPV-related Oropharynx cancer?

Infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is known to cause genital warts and lead to various genital cancers, but now it appears to also cause the majority of throat cancers.  The types of HPV that lead to throat cancer are generally sexually transmitted, though some researchers believe that even kissing may result in HPV transmission.   The time period from HPV exposure to the development of a throat cancer is often decades. Although the cancer may be slow-growing, it is important to have annual check-ups with your physician and dentist who can assess your oral health appropriately. 
How is HPV-related Oropharynx cancer treated?

HPV-related throat cancer can be effectively treated with either surgery or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.  The optimal treatment regimen is determined by the location and extent of the tumor along with patient preference.  Many oropharyngeal tumors can be treated in a minimally invasive way with the surgical robot or with trans-oral laser removal, resulting in faster recovery times and improved speech and swallowing outcomes.

The silver lining in this rising epidemic of HPV-related throat cancer is that these tumors seem to respond better to treatment than do throat cancers caused by cigarette smoking and alcohol, resulting in improved cure and survival rates.  Roughly 80-90% of HPV-related tumors can be completely cured with either surgery or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. (The exception to this rule is that HPV-induced oropharyngeal tumors in patients who also smoke do not show this increased responsiveness, and instead have worsened survival rates similar to those tumors caused only by cigarette-smoking and alcohol (not HPV-related).

Swedish Head & Neck Surgery offers all advanced and minimally invasive techniques for the treatment of throat cancer, including robotic surgery and trans-oral laser microsurgery. If you have questions, please contact our office at 206-292-6464.

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