Source: lubbockonline.com
Author: Ellysa Harris

Detecting oral cancers in patients in their 50s and 60s has never been uncommon. But local dentists and doctors say finding it in younger patient populations has become a new norm.

Oral cancers driven by Human Papillomavirus are now the fastest growing oral and oropharyngeal cancers, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation website. And local health officials say they’ve seen a few more cases than usual.

Dr. Joehassin Cordero, FACS, professor, chairman and program director ofTexas Tech’s Health Sciences Center Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, said less people are smoking and that has contributed to the decrease in the number of cases of oral cancers in the past two decades.

“In that same period, we have seen an increase in the HPV oropharyngeal cancer,” he said. “And oropharyngeal cancer — what it means it’s affecting the base of your tongue and tonsils.”

Dr. Brian Herring, a Lubbock dentist, chalks the increase up to increased awareness.

“I’m assuming probably for years and years and years it has affected the mouth but we didn’t know that,” he said. “As we get better at cellular diagnostics and molecular diagnostics, things like that, we’re finding that there is a large portion of cancers that do have an HPV component.”

What’s more alarming, said Dr. Ryan Higley, oral surgeon with West Texas Oral Facial Surgery, is it’s being diagnosed in younger people.

Higley said oral cancers are generally diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 65, mostly in women.

“With HPV-associated cancers, we see those four to 10 years before that,” he said. “It’s a younger patient population.”

Cordero said the oral cancers are often caused by exposure to HPV from years before.It starts with exposure to the HPV infection. One in four people in the United States are currently infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

“It’s truly considered a sexually transmitted disease,” Cordero said. “It has to do with not so much kissing, but oral sex.”

It’s passed on when somebody with an active lesion engages in sexual activities with another person, he said.

Nine out of 10 infections will disappear on their own, according to the CDC, but infections that linger for longer than about two years can lead to cancer.

“That doesn’t mean they’ll have cancer next week,” Cordero said.

Researchers are still trying to figure out why and how long after HPV exposure it takes for cancer to develop, he said.

“We don’t know the true mechanism because most of these people were not exposed a year ago,” he said. “They were not exposed six months ago. They were exposed a long time before that.”

When it does present, he said, there generally aren’t any noticeable symptoms.Because of that, it’s often diagnosed in later stages, Herring said.

“What we’re finding is because the demographic is changing, they’re not getting diagnosed as early because they’re not expecting to have this problem,” he said.

Screenings for oral HPV exist.

“The gold standard examination is your typical dental exam,” Herring said. If your dentist detects something unusual that might need further examination, he or she will make a referral to an oral surgeon.

Higley said oral HPV cancer presents as a lesion that looks like a kanker that won’t heal.

“However, cancerous lesions can have multiple presentations so that’s not exclusive,” he said. “So oftentimes, we’ll have a patient present with a hard nodule underneath their jaw line or in their neck. Sometimes they’ll just have red or white lesions within the mouth, hoarseness in their voice or difficulty swallowing. All those are things that need to be checked.”

The cancer seems to be more treatable, he said, but it’s hard to pinpoint why.

“We really don’t know if they’re more responsive to treatment because we’re treating a little bit younger patient population who is overall more healthy or if it’s inherant in the tumor itself,” Higley said.

Cordero said he hopes the HPV vaccine, which is recommended for both girls and boys 11 or 12 years old and people up to 26 years old, provides a measure of protection against the infection.

“We’re hoping in the next 10 to 20 years that head and neck cancer caused by HPV will be completely gone,” he said.

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