Commentary: There are good treatment options for the spike in head, neck cancers


HPV is the leading cause of head and neck cancers, but there is good news.

Head and neck cancers are on the rise and are due to a new culprit that already affects more than 26 million people in the United States.

The oral human papilloma virus (HPV) is now the leading cause of head and neck cancer in the United States — a form of cancer once attributed to excessive alcohol and tobacco use.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in this nation with more than 200 strains — nine of which are known to cause cancer and six others that are suspected of causing cancer.


When people think of HPV they likely think of a virus transmitted through skin-to-skin contact affecting the genitalia area, but it can also be transmitted through oral sex and can manifest in this location as well as other sites in the upper aero-digestive tract.

With HPV-related oro-pharyngeal cancers, men ages 35 to 55 are most at-risk, outnumbering women diagnosed with this type of cancer 4-1.

Using protection during sexual activity remains the recommended prevention method for any sexually transmitted disease, but with HPV, there are additional precautions that can be taken.

A vaccine that protects against certain strains of the virus is recommended for boys starting at age 9 and girls starting at age 11.

The vaccine can be administered up to age 26, but works best if given before a person is sexually active.

While the effectiveness of these vaccines has only been well studied in cervical cancer, it stands to reason that if a person can’t contract the virus — orally or otherwise — then it can’t cause cancer.

The oral version of this virus is difficult to verify with testing so it is important for people to stay diligent, make note of any changes in their oral health, and get checked by a physician.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer can include a lump or mass in the neck, ulcers in the mouth that don’t heal in several weeks, difficulty swallowing, discoloration of the soft tissues of the mouth, a swollen but painless tonsil, persistent sore throat, or a numb feeling in the mouth or lips, among others.

If an issue in the head and neck area leads to a diagnosis of cancer, patients can take comfort in knowing this disease is highly treatable.

Unlike cancers caused by smoking, chewing tobacco or alcohol consumption, HPV-related cancers are very sensitive to treatment and highly curable with proven, integrated treatment plans.

These cancers respond best to a multidisciplinary approach to treatment planning, including various combinations of radiation therapy, chemotherapy and minimally invasive surgery.

If surgery needs to be part of the treatment plan, patients should know it is not what it used to be, and that is a good thing.

Specialists in this field understand that the head and neck region is critical for everyday human interaction.

Our ability to eat, communicate and express emotion is all associated with the intricate and complex network of nerves and muscles that make up the head and neck.

In the past, head and neck cancer surgery often left a patient disfigured or challenged with a dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, and/or difficulty speaking.

Today, advancements in technology and minimally invasive procedures allows for, in many cases, treatments and cure while maintaining a high level of function for this critical area of the body. The outcomes, in fact, most often cure while preserving the patient’s ability to maintain a high quality of life.

Dr. TIMOTHY KELLEY is the head and neck cancer program director and oncologic surgeon at Hoag Hospital.