From Courtney L. Hentz, MD, and Benjamin T. Herms, MD

April 20, 2022

According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, every hour, an oral or oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) patient dies in America. The incidence and mortality of OPC, a common head and neck cancer, have steadily increased in the U.S. during the past two decades. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is the fastest-growing cause of head and neck cancer. Through HPV vaccination, we can practically eliminate this life-threatening disease.

Head and neck cancer includes cancers of the mouth, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, throat, and lymph nodes. OPC, the most common cancer caused by HPV in the U.S., occurs in the part of the throat at the back of the mouth. A study published in December in JAMA Otolaryngology- Head & Neck Surgery evaluated OPC incidence trends between 2001-2017 and revealed that incidences of the disease have increased. Findings also indicated that most cases of OPC have been concentrated in the Southeast and Midwest, including Ohio and Kentucky. Interestingly, the Southeast and Midwest have some of the lowest HPV vaccination rates. We need to redouble our efforts to educate our communities about head and neck cancer prevention and the importance of the HPV vaccine.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most of us will be infected with HPV during our lifetime. Certain sub-types of the virus, which is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact, can lead to disease. Our bodies are normally able to fight off the infection within a couple of years, but the risk for cancer increases if the virus remains in your system for several years. In addition to head and neck cancer, HPV is associated with almost all cervical cancers and some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, and anus. The HPV vaccine is available to anyone ages 9-45 and is recommended for boys and girls beginning at ages 9-12.

At OHC, we are encouraged by the work being done to increase the HPV vaccination rate. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has made HPV vaccination a public health priority. In fact, the department has set an 80 percent vaccination rate target by the year 2030 (nearly 59 percent of teens are up to date on HPV vaccination according to the 2020 National Immunization Survey). A simulation model created by investigators at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston illuminates the impact of achieving this target. Researchers project that if eight in 10 adolescents were vaccinated against HPV, we could prevent nearly one million cases of OPC over this century.

Fortunately, if diagnosed early, OPC caused by HPV is very treatable. Additional risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Being immunocompromised
  • Having certain genetic syndromes
  • Ultraviolet light exposure (associated with cancers of the lip)

Head and neck cancers are treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these options. In an effort to search for improved ways to treat head and neck cancer, OHC’s cancer research experts presently have a phase two clinical trial to evaluate a drug for patients with advanced tumors that have a specific gene mutation (alteration).

If discovered early, many head and neck cancers are curable. It is important to have routine dental checkups and report unusual symptoms to your healthcare provider, including:

  • A lump or sore in the mouth or neck that does not heal.
  • A sore throat that does not get better.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • A change in voice.
  • Blood in saliva or nosebleeds.
  • Ear pain or hearing loss.
  • Nasal congestion that does not clear.

This Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month serves as a reminder to stay on top of cancer prevention recommendations including routine healthcare checkups, regular cancer screenings, and healthy lifestyle changes. For an up-to-date listing of cancer screening guidelines or to request a second opinion, call 888-649-4800 or visit ohcare.com.

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