Traditionally, patients with oral cancers tended to be older individuals with a long history of smoking and heavy alcohol use. In the past decade, however, that picture has changed dramatically.
Today, infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer in the U.S. and Western Europe. Oropharyngeal cancers affect the back of the throat (i.e. the tonsils and base of the tongue). HPV is the same virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer in women.
Patients with HPV-related head and neck cancers are often relatively young, not heavy drinkers or smokers, and come from all segments of society.
The good news is that oral cancers caused by HPV generally respond better to therapy, and survival odds are quite good. In fact, Robert Haddad, MD, and his colleagues are testing whether these cancers can be treated with reduced doses of radiation and possibly chemotherapy as well, alleviating some of the toxic side effects associated with these treatments.
Haddad advises his patients with HPV-related cancers to vaccinate their children – girls and boys – against HPV.
“There is a misconception that only girls should be vaccinated and that is the wrong approach. We strongly believe that both boys and girls should be vaccinated against HPV,” he says.