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HPV Tied To Increased Head And Neck Cancer Among Younger People

X-ray of a painful neck

About 50,000 people are diagnosed with some form of head and neck cancer each year, most often older men. But research indicates an increase among younger people - partly because of an rise in cases of the HPV virus.

Dr. Teresa Chan-Leveno, Chief of Otolaryngology at Parkland Hospital System and an Assistant Professor in Head and Neck Surgery at U-T Southwestern Medical Center, talks about the ties between head and neck cancer and HPV.

Highlights from Dr. Chan-Leveno’s interview:

Role of HPV in the increase: “Smoking and then alcohol have been the biggest risk factors for (head and neck) cancer, and they remain the biggest risk factors. But as smoking has lost favor and decreased in our society a bit, HPV has certainly come out in the last ten years as something that’s more of a risk factor. You can see probably 70 percent of oral pharyngeal cancers, which is tonsil and base of tongue cancers, have an HPV relationship to them.”

How HPV brings this about: “It probably affects the DNA of the surface cells that it infects, and causes them to stop regulating their reproduction so that they don’t have any signal to stop reproducing, and that’s what a cancer is – something that grows indefinitely.”

How this all is connected to younger people: “You know, we all probably get exposed to HPV in our early sexual experiences. It doesn’t necessarily manifest at that time, but we do see younger in their 30s, 40s, maybe early 50s. The smoking related cancers we’re seeing older in 50s, 60s, and that’s why you’ve seen that younger preponderance.”

Does this warrant use if the HPV vaccine:  “It is not a CDC recommendation or an approved reason to get the Gardasil vaccine. We don’t know yet how the Gardasil will impact the rate of HPV-related pharyngeal cancers, but we do extrapolate because HPV-16 is in that, that it is protective and we would see over time a decrease in that rate. But as head and neck surgeons, we do recommend that people get vaccinated at the time in their early adolescence at a time before they’re exposed.”

For more information:

Head and Neck Cancer – What You Need To Know 

CDC: Human Papillomavirus (HPV) 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.