Throat cancer is one of the fastest-growing cancers among men. According to the National Cancer Institute, the majority of the cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). The same virus causes cervical cancer in women. April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness month, and an important time to learn more about why some of these cancers are on the rise.
There is evidence that HPV has been affecting humanity since the days of ancient Egypt. HPV is a family of more than 100 viruses transmitted through sex or other intimate contact. While the immune system often clears HPV without people even realizing they have had it, in other cases, the virus remains in the body for decades. Some strains of HPV are high risk for developing certain types of cancers, including cervical cancer and throat cancer.
Dr. Tom Thomas , director of head and neck reconstructive surgery and transoral robotic surgery (TORS) at Atlantic Health System, is a leading expert in diagnosing and treating head and neck cancers. He believes prevention is the best treatment for many of the cancers associated with HPV.
Dr Thomas adds the Covid-19 pandemic caused a major disruption in everyday routines, including people seeking medical care and preventive screenings. According to a study published in December 2021 in the journal Cancer, screenings for several major cancers fell significantly in 2020.
As such, Dr. Thomas urges people to continue their routine checkups, dental exams and screenings as they offer the best chance of finding most cancers, including head and neck cancers, in early stages when they are small and before they’ve spread.
Prevention through the vaccine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone under the age of 26 get vaccinated for HPV. It's still an option for individuals 27 to 45 to discuss with your doctor, but it is most effective when administered to children and teenagers before becoming sexually active.
According to Dr. Thomas, the HPV vaccine works. Numerous randomized trials have shown that the vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of preinvasive diseases. For the next generation, the HPV vaccine offers a bright outlook.
Early detection through screening
However, for people in their 40s and older, early detection and prevention remain important. HPV is now responsible for more than 70% of throat cancers, according to the CDC.
“Head and neck cancers, especially throat cancers, were a disease of an older demographic, people in their 50’s and 60’s and beyond who used excess tobacco and alcohol. However, HPV-related throat cancer commonly affects men in their 40s,” said Dr. Erik Cohen, medical director of head and neck oncologic surgery at Morristown Medical Center.
“Head and neck cancers, especially those caused by HPV, are curable when detected early,” said Dr. Thomas.
Head and neck cancer specialists like Dr. Thomas and Dr. Cohen can diagnose and recommend the best treatment options with the least amount of side effects for these types of cancers.
“Symptoms of throat cancer are often similar to an upper respiratory tract infection,” added Dr. Thomas. Since the ear, nose and throat are connected, you may have an earache only on one side, hoarse voice or pain when swallowing, which lingers even after you have used your usual home remedies and over-the-counter medications. Another symptom is a painless lump in your neck or an ulcer on your tonsil.
According to Dr. Thomas, if any of these symptoms mentioned above are not better after three weeks, you should see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat physician). These doctors can then refer you to a head and neck surgeon for a more thorough evaluation and workup.
Cutting-edge surgery for treatment
Dr. Thomas and Dr. Cohen specialize in treating both benign and malignant head and neck tumors. They are trained in the latest minimally invasive surgical techniques and have expertise in trans oral robotic surgery (TORS) and transoral laser microsurgery (TLM).
These innovative techniques — combined with his microvascular expertise and plastic and reconstructive surgical approaches — help preserve speech and swallowing functions, which could be drastically affected by head and neck cancer and related treatments.