Many people associate the sexually transmitted HPV virus with cervical cancer. And although that is true- 70% of cervical cancer is caused by HPV, increasingly, cancers of the head and neck have also been associated with the virus. Michael Douglas, the actor, recently spoke out about his cancer being related to HPV.
The prevalence of Head and Neck Cancer has been on the rise in young, non-tobacco users. Experts think this rise may be related to oral sex and the HPV or human papillomavirus. The incidence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer has increased during the past 20 years, especially among men. It has been estimated that, by 2020, HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the United States (1).
However, these cancers are now preventable. 7 years ago, vaccines to prevent the spread of HPV first hit the market. Unfortunately due to several potential reasons, only 32 percent of girls ages 13 to 17, and less than 2 percent of boys in the United States, have received a complete course of the HPV vaccine- which includes 3 shots. The lack of widespread vaccination may be because of parental fear of potential vaccine side effects, social stigma relating to sexually transmitted diseases and inconsistent coverage of the vaccine by insurance providers.
The HPV virus is 3 times more prevalent in men, yet the major push for vaccination has been in women and girls due to the risk of cervical cancer. Now with these reports about the increased risk in throat and tongue cancer for men, vaccines are recommended for any person over the age of 9 years old- men and women.
Unfortunately, the vaccine can do nothing for people who have already developed one of these types of cancers. Treatments for cervical and head and neck cancers include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hyperthermia.
1). Chaturvedi AK, Engels EA, Pfeiffer RM, et al. Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2011; 29(32):4294–4301.