Throat, mouth, lip and tongue cancers used to be seen as a result of smoking and affected a small sliver of the cancer population. Now oral cancers are on the rise, and it’s HPV feeding its growth.
“We weren’t testing for HPV that long ago and we didn’t really understand that they were HPV mediated tumors,” says Dr. Phillip Andrews, an otolaryngologist on staff at Lee Memorial Health System. “They were just non-smokers who had throat cancer. Typically prior to 15-20 years ago almost all throat cancers were related to smoking.”
It’s estimated 71% of new oral cancer cases are linked to the human papilloma virus, which also causes cervical cancer. As researchers look closer at HPV oral cancers, they are finding differences that affect patient’s survivability.
“The main thing to us is that the HPV caused tumors usually respond much better through treatment. They’ve got a better chance of cure,” says Dr. Andrews.
Oral cancers fed by HPV are mostly diagnosed in people who have a lump in their neck- caused by a growing tumor. They are for the most part less aggressive, which in turn has contributed to better treatment options.
“We’re actually seeing a lot less patients who need surgery today versus 10 years ago,” says Lee Memorial Health System speech therapist Stacey Brill.
She finds chemotherapy and radiation used to treat oral cancers today carry less long-term eating, drinking and swallowing issues.
“We get them in and get them going before they even start chemo-radiation, just to get baselines and give them education and so forth. And be able to plug them into therapy as soon as something is identified,” says Brill.
Greater awareness is feeding into a better understanding of HPV oral cancers, making them easier to manage and overcome.