When you think of the risk factors of head and neck cancer that may affect young people, excessive smoking and drinking may seem like a reasonable connection. After all, 75 percent of these cancers are linked to alcohol and tobacco use.
But a rise in a certain type of head and neck cancer among young adults has nothing to do with drinking or smoking habits.
HPV and Oral Pharynx Cancer: The Surprising Connection
“In the past decade or so, there’s been a remarkable increase in the oral pharynx tumors (cancers that develop in the part of the throat that’s right behind the mouth), where HPV, or human papillomavirus ... has been much more commonly involved in the development of these tumors,” says Mark Persky, MD, otolaryngologist and surgeon at NYU Langone Health in New York City. “You're talking about something that is epidemic proportions that is hitting younger people.” (Learn more about the different types of head and neck cancer.)
HPV is actually a collection of around 200 related viruses, but HPV types 16 and 18 are linked to a higher risk of several types of cancer, including oral pharynx cancer.
The HPV virus can remain dormant in tonsil tissue for many years, but it can become carcinogenic, meaning it can cause cancer to develop, says Dr. Perksy.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection—the most common in the country, in fact. What’s tricky about this virus, though, is that many people don’t develop any symptoms (so they may not know they have it) but can still infect others through sexual contact.
Can You Get Screened for HPV?
“Screening for HPV is very difficult,” says Dr. Persky. “There’s no simple blood test that can pick up HPV infections.”
The only way to identify HPV is to examine the tissue, which would require an extensive biopsy. You can have a microscopic presence of oral pharynx cancer, yet have significant lymph node involvement, says Dr. Persky. “And that’s typical for HPV-positive oral pharynx tumors.”
How to Lower Your Risk of HPV-Positive Cancers
“HPV vaccines … should be promoted by primary care physicians for children, before they develop any sort of sexual contact (ideally around age 11 or 12), to protect them from infection and subsequent cancers that develop secondary to the HPV infection,” says Dr. Persky. “I think that's a national initiative that should be certainly stressed.”
It’s important for you to be aware of all the risk factors and how you can lower your risk for head and neck cancer—whether you have control over them or not. Your doctor can help you understand your status and help you manage your risk of head and neck cancer.