Author: Salynn Boyles
Changing sexual practices have led to a dramatic rise in throat cancer in the United States over the past two decades, and experts say they fear an epidemic of the disease.
The comments were made Wednesday at a news conference held by the American Association for Cancer Research to discuss research into the role of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus ( HPV) in head and neck cancer.
Increasing rates of HPV infection, spread through oral sex, is largely driving the rapid rise in oropharyngeal cancers, which include tumors of the throat, tonsils, and base of the tongue, said Scott Lippman, MD, who chairs the thoracic department at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Studies of oropharyngeal tumor tissue stored 20 years ago show that only around 20% are HPV positive, Lippman said. Today it is estimated that 60% of patients are infected with the virus.
“The percentage of oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV positive is much higher now than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “This is a real trend, and that is why there is concern of an epidemic given that fact that oropharyngeal cancer is increasing at an alarming rate.”
Changing Face of Throat Cancer
Smoking and alcohol abuse were once considered the only major risk factors for these cancers, but this is no longer the case.
American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Otis Brawley, MD, said as many as half of the oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed today appear to be caused by HPV infection.
“Changing sexual practices over the last 20 years, especially as they relate to oral sex, are increasing the rate of head and neck cancers and may be increasing the rates of other cancers as well,” he said.
He added that there is some evidence that oral HPV infection is also a risk factor for a type of cancer of the esophagus.
“The paradigm is changing,” Lippman said. “The types of patients we are seeing now with oropharyngeal cancers are not the patients we have classically seen who were older, smokers, and have lots of other problems. These are young people, executives, a whole different population.”
Oral Sex Not Safe Sex
The experts agreed that it is critical for the public to understand that oral sex doesn’t equal safe sex. The message was unofficially promoted in the early days of the HIV epidemic and it is still widely believed by many, especially teens.
Studies suggest that teens are often unaware of the risks associated with unprotected oral sex, including the transmission of HPV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
“There is a huge public health message here,” Brawley said.