oral-cancer
Throat and mouth cancer

Millions of Men May Be Unaware They Have a Virus That Can Cause Cancer

Women have long been advised to have annual Pap smears that can detect cervical cancer caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), as I reported in my August 28th 2017 article on thirdAGE.com. In that article, I also noted that HPV can cause head and neck cancers. The oral strain is the culprit. Now a multi-university study published online October 17th 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine has shown that the prevalence of oral HPV infection is an astonishing 11 million men, as well as 3.2 million women, nationwide, The study participants were adults aged 18 to 69 years from NHANES (National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey), 2011 to 2014, the most recent data available.

The good news is that the FDA-approved vaccines Cervarix and Gardasil prevent the cancer-causing HPV strains. The not-so-good news is that people over the age of 26 don’t benefit from the vaccines. The recommendation is that children, both boys and girls, should be vaccinated at age 11 or 12 before sexual activity is likely to begin. Yet far fewer boys than girls are getting the vaccinations, even though they are safe, effective, and readily available. Parents and grandparents, please take note of that and speak with your family’s pediatrician if your sons and grandsons haven’t been vaccinated!

What is truly unfortunate, though, is that there is no screening procedure comparable to the Pap smear that can detect whether or not someone is harboring oral HPV. The virus can remain “silent” for years, decades even, and then cause cancer. However, the earlier an incidence of cancer is detected the better. That’s why in May of 2017 the American Dental Association (ADA) and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas began a collaboration dedicated to improving patient outcomes “through programs aimed at dental and medical professionals and the public to increase human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations and tobacco cessation for oral cancer prevention.” In the announcement about the effort, ADA President Gary Roberts, D.D.S. is quoted as saying, “ADA member dentists promise to put patients first, and as a profession we look for innovative ways to treat and prevent disease, and promote wellness. Together with MD Anderson, one of the most respected cancer centers in the world, we are excited to pioneer new programs to help our patients live healthy and disease-free lives.”

The ADA-MD Anderson announcement noted that according to the American Cancer Society, “an estimated 50,000 cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., and rates in men are more than twice as high as in women. These cancers are often not diagnosed until late stages, when treatment is less effective.”

The takeaway here is that men, especially those who have engaged in oral sex, need to be proactive in getting an assessment of possible oral cancers. Not only that, but women should be proactive as well. An example case underscoring the need for dentists and oncologists to work together was that of Sandy Wexler, a Houston nurse who was diagnosed with stage IV oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV after her dentist noticed that one of her lymph nodes was enlarged. An eye, ear, nose and throat specialist subsequently ordered a biopsy. After radiation and chemotherapy, Sandy is a survivor. The hope is that other patients all across the country, in particular men, will also survive oral cancers as a result of routine visits to their dentists. Until a screening test is developed, that is our greatest hope for beating the alarming frequency of oral cancers caused by HPV.

Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of thirdAGE.com.