Author: Bianca Castro
The number of men diagnosed with head and neck cancer caused by human papillomavirus has skyrocketed. This report found that 11 million men and 3.2 million women in the United States are infected with some type of oral HPV and oncologists say it’s leading to more head and neck cancer in men.
“From the 1970’s to today, the prevalence of this HPV-related head and neck cancer has increased by three to five percent per year from then until now, and it is continuing that same rate,” said Oncologist Jerry Barker, Jr., M.D. at Texas Oncology.
“This is a silent epidemic. Most patients who are exposed to this virus, they don’t know it. They’ll never have symptoms from it, but some of those patients will move on to develop a cancer,” said Dr. Barker.
Jeff Busby, of Weatherford, is one of those patients. The aerospace engineer and owner of Busby Quarter Horses says he was diagnosed with throat cancer in February of 2016. His wife Andrea, who documented their journey here, says they were both shocked.
“We were just busy living life. You don’t ever think that shoe is going to drop,” said Andrea.
Jeff says the symptoms began as pain in his ear which lead to pain in his throat. Nine months later, he had a biopsy done on what was a mass in his neck.
“I had just been toughing it out and my partner said, ‘hey, you can’t just tough these kinds of things out. You’ve got to go get this checked out,'” said Jeff.
“It was the cancer putting pressure on and radiating nerve pain to the ear. There was nothing wrong with the ear whatsoever,” said Jeff.
A biopsy revealed Jeff had throat cancer caused by the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection.
Jeff was likely exposed in his teens or 20s, but now decades later, created a cancer with one of the most gruesome treatment protocols. He needed surgery to remove his bottom teeth and part of his jaw, 35 radiation treatments and six rounds of chemotherapy.
“I couldn’t let any of my energy go towards feeling sorry for myself because I had to have every amount of energy I had to beat this thing,” said Jeff.
Jeff had never heard of HPV before, while Andrea says she thought it was linked to only cervical cancer.
While pap smears screen for cervical cancer, there is no screening for hpv-related head and neck cancer and that may be part of the reason rates of hpv-related head and neck cancer has surpassed the rate of hpv-related cervical cancer.
There is way to stop the epidemic. The HPV vaccine is recommended for children as early as 11-years-old and young adults as old as 26 years of age. However, according to this study, in Texas, only 35 percent of children get the vaccine.
“Somewhere along the way, these vaccines developed the idea that they had to do with human sexuality and preventing a sexually transmitted disease, but in reality, they are designed to prevent cancer. These are cancer vaccines,” said Dr. Barker.
“If you could just see what some of our patients have to go through to cure one of these cancers, you would run to get the needle in the arm to prevent that from happening to one of your children.”
At 55, Jeff never had the chance to benefit from the vaccine, approved for use in 2006. He’s now cancer free and in some ways, he says, life is better than before cancer.
“I thank God for this challenge and I still wouldn’t change it today. I wouldn’t take it all away because I didn’t think I could be closer to the Lord or to my wife and I certainly have a much better relationship with both,” said Jeff.
He and Andrea are focused on raising vaccination rates and preventing the kind of cancer battle they fought from from happening to someone else.
“There are so many parents that even hear about but still choose not to do it. It’s beyond me. I can’t understand that,” said Jeff.
“Whether it gets a kid vaccinated or somebody sitting on their couch goes, ‘I have ear pain when I swallow. I should go to the doctor.’ That’s why we are doing this,” said Andrea.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that most Americans have some type of HPV strain but not all strains lead to cancer. Some of the symptoms are head and neck cancer include ear pain, difficulty swallowing and a painless lump on the side of the neck.