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HPV and Head and Neck Cancer: The link is real. The prognosis is good.

February 07, 2018

For years head and neck cancer was mostly associated with heavy drinkers and smokers who had other chronic diseases.  That has changed dramatically in recent years.

“The face of the disease has really changed because of the prevalence of HPV (human papillomavirus) which is now the leading cause of head and neck cancer, particularly in the oropharynx (tonsils and back of the tongue). We’re seeing a younger and healthier patient population,” says Dr. Andrew Salner, Medical Director Hartford Healthcare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital.

Dr. Salner will be joined by Dr. David Pfister, Chief of Head and Neck Oncology Services at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Cancer Center, for a free community talk, “The Link Between Head and Neck Cancer and Human Papilloma Virus,” on Wednesday, Feb. 28 from 4 – 5 p.m. at the Hartford Hospital Wellness Center at Blue Back Square in West Hartford.  The talk will focus on the importance of coordinated care in the treatment of head and neck cancer and the presentation of a joint study by MSK and the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute aimed at helping patients better identify and cope with long term side effects of treatment.  The event is free but registration is required.  Call 1.855.HHC.HERE or visit hartfordhealthcare.org to register.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States with 79 million people, most in their late teens and early 20s, infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Most people who have HPV will not develop cancer. For some however, the virus can create damage that eventually causes a tumor to grow over the years.   The good news: Head and neck cancer is detectable through routine screening and the five year survival rate is more than 75 percent with even better outcomes for those patients with cancer related to HPV.

“The challenge for us is not only treating those patients effectively but also trying to minimize the side effects because those patients have a good prognosis and will be living with the impact of treatment forever,” says Salner.

Long term side effects of treatment which might occur include mouth dryness, neck stiffness, swallowing dysfunction, and possible jaw bone injury. 

According to the National Cancer Institute symptoms of head and neck cancer include:

  • A painless mass in neck which gradually increases in size
  • A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.
  • Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.
  • Pain when swallowing or ear pain.
  • Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.

It’s important to consult with a doctor or dentist if you have any of these symptoms.

Hartford HealthCare is a member of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Alliance, which has brought MSK treatment standards, protocols, research and clinical trials to all HHCCI cancer centers, which include Backus, Windham, Hospital of Central Connecticut, MidState Medical Center and Hartford.