What’s the link between HPV and head and neck cancer?
As a molecular epidemiologist, I’ve been conducting research on human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers since my dissertation work in 2003. While working with the clinical faculty here at Baylor College of Medicine, I’ve heard many questions lately about the possibility of the HPV vaccine “helping treat” head and neck cancer (HNC).
It’s important to know the link between HPV and HNC because patients with HPV-positive tumors often have better survival rates than those with HPV-negative tumors. Check out these frequently asked questions to learn more about HPV and HNC.
What is HPV?
- HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can infect the oral cavity, tonsils, back of throat, anus, and genitals.
- There are many types of HPV. Some types can cause cancer and other types can cause warts.
- HPV infection is very common in the U.S. with more than 50 percent of adults being infected at some point in their lifetime.
- There is no treatment for HPV infection.
- For some people, their HPV infection naturally clears while others develop cancer after many years.
What is oropharyngeal cancer?
- Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the tonsils and back of throat.
- In the U.S., HPV now causes most oropharyngeal cancers.
- Most doctors would recommend that oropharyngeal cancers be tested for HPV.
- Smoking and alcohol use can also increase risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.
How did I get HPV infection in my mouth or throat?
- The most likely route of exposure is by oral sex, although other routes may exist.
- Performing oral sex and having many oral sex partners can increase your chances of oral HPV infection.
- HPV is not transmitted casually by kissing on the cheek or sharing a drink with someone.
- We do not know for sure if HPV is transmitted by open-mouth or “French” kissing.
What does it mean as a HNC patient if I have HPV in my tumor?
- Many studies have shown that oropharyngeal cancer patients with HPV in their tumor have a better outcome than people without HPV.
- These patients tend to respond better to both chemotherapy and radiation treatment for HNC. Appropriately selected patients also have excellent outcomes after surgery.
Is the HPV vaccine for me?
- The HPV vaccines work by preventing people from getting new HPV infections.
- These vaccines do not treat HPV infection or the cancers that HPV cause.
- The vaccines are currently recommended for people ages nine to 26 years old.
Learn more about head and neck cancer treatment services at Baylor.
Know your risk for developing head and neck cancer
-By Michael Scheurer, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics-hematology/oncology at Baylor College of Medicine