Author: Carrie Feibel
The national increase in cases of oropharyngeal cancer related to the human papilloma virus is troubling, because there is no screening test to catch it early, like the Pap test for cervical cancer.
The oropharynx is the area of the throat behind the mouth, and includes the tonsils and the base of the tongue. Oropharyngeal cancer is increasing in both men and women, but for reasons that aren’t well understood, male patients are outnumbering female patients by five to one, according to Dr. Erich Sturgis, a head and neck surgeon at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“It’s usually a man, and he notices it when he’s shaving. He notices a lump there,” Sturgis said. “That lump is actually the spread of the cancer from the tonsil or the base of the tongue to a lymph node. That means it’s already stage three at least.”
In the U.S., the number of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV are predicted to exceed the number of cervical cancers by 2020, Stugis said.
“With cervical cancer, we’ve seen declining numbers well before we had vaccination, and that’s due to the Pap smear being introduced back in the late 50s,” he said. “But we don’t have a screening mechanism for pharynx cancer.”
Research on an effective screening test for early-stage pharynx cancer is still underway. The reasons for the disproportionate effect on men are unknown. One theory is that people are engaging in more oral sex, but that doesn’t explain why men are more affected than women. Some suspect hormonal differences between men and women may be involved, and others hypothesize that it takes longer for women to “clear” the viral infection from their genitals, compared to men, according to Sturgis.
One of Sturgis’s patients, Bert Noojin, is an attorney in Alabama. He felt a little knot in his neck in early 2011. It took three trips to his primary care doctor, then a visit with an otolaryngologist before he was referred for a biopsy. Noojin was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, but he still felt fine.
“It was still hard for me to believe I was sick in any way,” he recalled. “I didn’t even have a serious sore throat.”
After being diagnosed, Noojin came to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a second opinion and to pursue treatment. It was less than three months from when he first felt the knot, but an oncologist warned him the cancer was spreading fast.
“He said ‘Well, you need to start treatment right away’ and I said, ‘Well, do I have a week or 10 days to go home and get some things in order?’ and he said ‘No.’”
“He said ‘If you leave here, and you’re not part of our treatment plan when you leave here, I don’t think we’ll be able to help you.’ That is how far this disease had progressed, in such a very short time.”
The prognosis for HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is good, especially compared to patients whose throat cancer is caused by heavy use of tobacco or alcohol, according to Sturgis. Between 75 and 80 percent of patients with the HPV-related type survive more than five years.
But the treatment is difficult, and can include “long-term swallowing problems, long-term problems with carotid artery narrowing, and long-term troubles with the teeth and jaw bone, and things that can cause a need for major surgeries later.”
In the summer of 2011, Noojin began chemotherapy and radiation at MD Anderson. He struggled with pain, nausea, and swallowing, and had to get a temporary feeding tube.
“Your throat just shuts down,” he said. “You’re burned on the inside. Just swallowing your own saliva, as an instinct, hurts.”
Noojin lost 45 pounds during treatment but feels lucky to have survived. He went back to his law practice in Alabama.
Noojin learned that cancers related to HPV, which is sexually transmitted, are cloaked in shame and guilt.
He experienced this first-hand when his marriage fell apart during his recovery. His wife was traumatized by the difficult months of treatment, he said. In addition, she irrationally blamed herself for giving him the virus, even though he was probably exposed many years earlier. He tried to comfort her and dispel her guilt, but they eventually divorced.
“I was married over two decades, but I was married previously, and she was married previously,” he said. “It just makes no sense for any of this to have a stigma.”
An estimated 80 percent of America women and 90 percent of men contract HPV at some point in their lives, usually when they’re young and first become sexually active. But the cancers caused by HPV can take years to develop.
“It’s a virus. It’s not anybody’s fault,” Noojin said.
He echoed the public health experts in calling for an end to the silence and shame, and a shift to a focus on prevention.
“All of what I went through, and all of what hundreds of thousands of men, and women, because of cervical cancer – what they have gone through is avoidable for the next many generations … if we just got serious about making sure our kids get vaccinated.”
The series of three shots can be given as early as age nine, but must be completed before the age of 26 to be effective. Currently, the completion rate for young women in the U.S. is less than 50 percent. Among young men, it’s less than 30 percent. That’s why experts warn these particular cancers will still be a problem decades from now.