From David Pratt, MD, Radiation Oncologist

April 26, 2021

Globally, the increasing incidence of head and neck cancer is worrisome. In the U.S. there are about 65,000 cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed annually. Although this type of cancer is typically diagnosed in older men who have a history of alcohol abuse and tobacco use, at OHC, we are seeing more head and neck cancer in younger, healthier adults.

First, some background information on head and neck cancer. Head and neck cancer includes cancers of the throat, nose, mouth, sinuses, and larynx (voice box). Most patients are diagnosed after age 55, and the two most important risk factors have traditionally been tobacco use and alcohol consumption. For more information about signs and symptoms, visit https://www.ohcare.com/condition/head-and-neck-cancer/. As smoking rates have declined and more adults under the age of 50 have received a head and neck cancer diagnosis, another risk factor is garnering more attention among my team of cancer specialists at OHC—HPV infection.

HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a group of more than 150 types of viruses that are transmitted sexually. There are high risk and low risk types of HPV. If a high-risk HPV infection persists for several years, it can cause several types of cancer, one of which is a type of head and neck cancer called oropharyngeal cancer (OPC). OPC affects the back of the tongue and throat. OPC associated with HPV infection has been on the rise in young men and women for the past two decades.

Key risk factors for the development of HPV-associated head and neck cancers include an early age of onset for sexual activity and having multiple sexual partners. Oftentimes, these individuals have no history of alcohol abuse or tobacco use.

There are many things you can do to protect yourself from this highly preventable cancer. Maintain a healthy lifestyle by:

  • Avoiding tobacco and alcohol
  • Practicing safe sex and getting vaccinated for HPV
    • OHC recommends that boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 12 get the HPV vaccine. Anyone ages 13-45 is eligible for the vaccine and should discuss questions with their healthcare provider.
  • Limiting exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun and artificial sources
  • Taking protective measures when working with asbestos, wood dust, and radiation
  • Practicing proper mouth hygiene and getting regular dental check-ups

While there are no standard screening test recommendations for head and neck cancers, a physician can examine the nose and throat with an endoscope, a small flexible telescope. The procedure is usually quick and painless.

Fortunately, head and neck cancers are considered highly treatable when detected early. The prognosis and treatment for those with head and neck cancer depends upon several factors including age, gender, cancer stage, and location of the tumor. HPV-related cancers typically have higher survival rates and lower recurrence rates because chemotherapy and radiation treatments work better for these types of cancers than others.

At OHC, our cancer research program is evaluating personalized medicine for the treatment of head and neck cancers. This research helps us to identify the specific drugs that target a patient’s tumor based on its genetic makeup. We remain committed to bringing the latest treatments to patients. These targeted therapies and immunotherapies that use the patient’s immune system to fight the cancer offer patients a positive outlook.

This Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month is a great opportunity to take steps towards healthier living and discuss any unusual symptoms with your healthcare provider. To make an appointment or get a second opinion with an OHC cancer expert, visit ohcare.com or call 1-888-649-4800.

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