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HPV traced to growing number of oral cancers

National Public Radio

More and more oral cancers being treated by oncologists can be traced to a well-known and very common virus for which there is a vaccine for young people.

For decades, most throat cancer was blamed on drinking and smoking. That is a kind of cancer that can be treated if doctors or dentists spot the signs of it early enough.

Now, an increasing percentage of those throat cancers show the human papilloma virus - the most commonly sexually transmitted infection in the world. Dr. Kimberly Wooten, head and neck surgeon at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, said she sees this larger percentage associated with HPV.

She said treatments are available if the disease is caught early, and early detection depends on doctors and dentists spotting the signs.

"It really depends on A, the stage," Wooten said. "But we're finding patients who are presenting with similar symptoms, physically with the presentation of oropharyngeal cancers. They often have a symptom of a neck node and that's similar whether it's an HPV-associated disease or if it's something that is precipitated by smoking or drinking."

New recommendations for treatment of these oral cancers take effect next year and that will change treatments to reflect whether tests show HPV or cancers likely caused by smoking and drinking. Wooten said young people should be getting the HPV vaccination.
"Focus on and talk about the decreased risk of future cancers and promote parents and teachers to really talk to the families about the benefits of the HPV vaccine, even though we ourselves are not administering it or talking to parents regarding their children from it on a regular basis," Wooten said.

It is not just that there are more sex-related oral cancers - although there are - but there are fewer associated with drinking and smoking because the rates of drinking and smoking have dropped.

"So, as both of those populations seem to shift," Wooten said, "we're starting to see more people who are presenting with HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers."

A new Canadian study reported three-quarters of the throat cancer cases treated in specialized cancer centers related to HPV. The study said the increase blamed on HPV and oral sex will continue to increase.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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