Life Unexpected … HPV-Associated Throat Cancer Catching Up with Non-Smoking Men & Women

Pamela_240Last December, my husband Jeff reported difficulty swallowing. His physician attributed the symptoms to “post-nasal drip” and prescribed a nose spray. If only it were allergies.

After three months, as the lump in his throat persisted and normal eating became painful, my husband finally saw a Head and Neck specialist. The doctor immediately identified a malignant tumor hidden at the base of Jeff’s tongue that was not visible to the untrained eye.

It was HPV-positive throat cancer. And it was too late for surgery. We were in shock. Jeff is athletic and active. He has never smoked. How could he have throat cancer?

We learned that HPV, the human papillomavirus, can sit dormant in the body for decades. It’s usually contracted when you’re young – in your teens or early 20s – when people become sexually active. The virus can be transmitted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In other words, anyone can get it.

Pandemic

If you’re thinking, “Not me!”, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that at least half of the sexually active population will get HPV at some time in their lives. Sometimes your body can fight it off, but certain strains of HPV can turn into cancer by mutating your body’s cells.

As a result, more and more unsuspecting middle-aged, non-smoking men and women are getting HPV-related cancer in the throat. In women, HPV cervical cancer is more common (and more well known), but women can also get HPV throat cancer. By 2020, the American Society of Clinical Oncologists says HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the throat, tongue, or tonsils) in men will surpass cervical cancers among women.

It’s a new cancer battle, especially for boys and men. More than 7,000 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. Our doctor told us 80% of middle age men carry the HPV.

Treatment

Doctors are still learning about the most effective treatments for HPV throat cancer. More research is needed. In the meantime, they can only treat HPV throat cancer with the same treatment plans used for the aggressive forms of throat cancer usually caused by smoking and alcohol.

Pamela2_240Pamela’s husband, Jeff.

Two weeks after Jeff was diagnosed, he began seven weeks of daily radiation and weekly intravenous infusions of Erbitux. Multiple side effects increased as the treatment became cumulative over time: fatigue, weakness, nausea, constipation followed by the inability to eat solids and consequently, massive weight loss. With his throat out of commission, he relied on a feeding tube that dripped five to six cans of formula into his stomach each day.

The treatment left his neck with the ultimate sunburn: red, blistered, burnt. The inside of his throat – raw, tender, fried. Jeff was unable to eat solid foods or even milkshakes 60 days post-treatment. Water tasted metallic. While he could smell the aroma of cooked foods, one bite was revolting. Today he can eat again but he has a perpetual dry mouth due to the radiation damage on his salivary glands so and foods don’t always taste as they should

But Jeff was lucky. At the extreme, HPV throat cancer patients may lose their tongue, jaw, and voice, if not their lives.

Prevention

The prognosis for HPV throat cancer is good if it is caught early. There is an 80-90% cure rate. Yet so far, there is no formal screening for HPV in men like the Pap smear for women. The CDC recommends Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, for girls and boys but it’s not common for pediatricians to vaccinate boys. That has to change.

The best defense is knowledge about HPV prevention and how to look for early signs of HPV-associated throat cancer. If you experience difficulty swallowing or a lump in your throat, see a Head and Neck specialist immediately.

Like AIDS and HIV in its infancy, HPV carries a social stigma because it is sexually contracted. Often HPV-associated throat cancer patients don’t always want to step forward. If you are an HPV-associated throat cancer survivor or know someone who is battling it or has lost the fight, now is the truly the time to Stand Up To Cancer. We have no time to wait.

I am an ordinary person living with an extraordinary disease in the person I love. That’s why I just launched a community campaign for a multimedia website called HPVandMe.org and made this video. The purpose of the site is simple: to help reduce HPV infection and throat cancer, and to increase support and advance the critical research necessary to fight this pandemic. It’s my way of helping while feeling so helpless during my husband’s journey with HPV throat cancer. I hope you will find it a compelling resource.

Be aware. Be vigilant. Be well.

Pamela Tom is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist and founder of hpvandme.org, an informational and support website in development. Contact her at: hpvandmeorg@gmail.com

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