For adults – especially men – understanding human papillomavirus (HPV) can mean catching cancer early. And for boys and girls, and their parents, understanding it today can mean avoiding certain types of cancer later in life.
“As surgeons, we want to educate the community about a new HPV epidemic,” says Tom Thomas, MD, MPH, medical director of head and neck reconstructive and transoral (through the mouth) robotic surgery for the Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center. “For a small but growing number of men, HPV is causing head and neck cancers while they are in their 40s.”
Most sexually active people are exposed to HPV early in life. For the vast majority, the body’s immune system attacks it successfully. Over the last decade, however, physicians have seen a rise in head and neck cancer in men caused by a specific strain, HPV 16. Women are also affected, but at a much lower rate. Symptoms are often vague, and might include a lump on the neck, trouble swallowing, and ear or throat pain.
Surgeons at Atlantic Health System have recently increased services in order to provide the latest tests and treatments for these cancers.
“We have brought on specialists in robotic surgery,” says Erik Cohen, MD, medical director of head and neck surgical oncology and one of Atlantic Health System’s transoral surgeons who specializes in robot-assisted surgery. “We brought on Dr. Thomas to further advance our Transoral Robotic Surgery Program. We now have multiple effective treatment options for HPV-associated head and neck cancer. For many patients, the ability to perform minimally invasive surgery through the mouth, using the da Vinci® Surgical System, decreases the need for traditional open surgery as well as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. This can help minimize the long-term impact on speech and swallowing and return them to normal function even faster.”
For youth, Atlantic Health System physicians offer a word of prevention: “Get the HPV vaccine. It’s the best way to avoid some of the cancers caused by this virus,” Dr. Thomas says.