Q&A Topic: HPV-Positive Head and Neck Cancer

Alfred Tinger, MD, FACRO

Q. What is HPV and is it true it can cause head and neck cancer?

A. The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is the most common sexually-transmitted virus in the United States. For years, we’ve known that an HPV virus infection raises a woman’s risk for cervical cancer, but we’ve recently recognized that the virus also increases the risk for head and neck cancers, or cancer arising from the lining of the mouth, tongue, or throat, especially in younger men. In fact, HPV is now the leading cause of head and neck cancers among men, above the known carcinogens like tobacco and alcohol. These rising numbers could mean the virus has become more aggressive, or that oral sex has become more prevalent. Unlike testing for cervical HPV, which has lowered the incidence of cervical cancer, oral HPV testing doesn’t exist. There’s no test for a man who wants to know his HPV status or risk.

Q. HPV is so common, how can I protect my children? 

A. The only way to eliminate the risk of HPV associated cancers is to refrain from sexual activity. Have open conversations with your children about sex before they think about becoming sexually active. Speak to your pediatrician about the HPV vaccination, which experts believe should reduce the incidence of HPV associated cancers in the future. Once sexually active, which I do not advocate for children, the best ways to minimize the risk is to have the fewest number of partners possible and to use safe sex practices such as male and female condoms, though these methods aren’t 100 percent effective.

Q. How is HPV-positive head and neck cancer diagnosed?

A. Cancers can be tested for the presence of HPV signatures. Those with HPV-positive head and neck cancer typically visit their primary care physicians with some sort of discomfort in the head and neck region, like a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or a lump in the neck that may not resolve. Some people have a visibly enlarged lymph node on their neck. If it’s found early enough, an HPV-positive tumor can be removed with surgery alone.

Q. For more advanced cancers, how is HPV-Positive head and neck cancer treated?

A. Chemotherapy and radiation together are often enough to cure the cancer or to reduce it sufficiently so that it can be removed. Radiation therapy to the head and neck is one of the most challenging treatments that patients have to endure as they may not be able to speak, taste, chew, and eat normally. These patients need a coordinated care team to help ease treatment.

 Q. Why is a coordinated care team so essential?

A. At Northern Westchester Hospital, we offer all the experts a patient would need through their treatment journey, including medical and radiation oncologists, nurses with an interest and experience in treating this disease, other specialized physicians, dietitians, speech and swallowing therapists and respiratory therapists, in one, convenient space. Treatment may be challenging, but being able to receive both education and testing without having to leave the building, makes it a little easier.

Learn More About Dr. Tinger
Chief of Radiation Oncology
Cancer Treatment & Wellness Center
Northern Westchester Hospital

Northern Westchester Hospital is a proud member of Northwell Health.

More from Dr. Tinger: 
Cancer Survivorship  
Radiation Oncology For Breast Cancer  
Treating Skin Cancer with Radiation Therapy
Radiation Therapy for Prostate Cancer 
Q&A Topic: Stereotactic Radiotherapy for Lung Cancer

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