HPV+ Head and Neck Cancer

HPV+ Head and neck cancer

While HPV has long been recognized as a driver of cervical cancer in women, it also causes cancers in the head and neck. These cancers tend to appear in a region called the “oropharynx,” which includes the back of the throat, the tonsils, and the base of the tongue. Head and neck cancer in this location is called “oropharyngeal cancer.”

HPV is a sexually-transmitted infection. Only certain strains of HPV cause head and neck cancer. An HPV infection may not develop into cancer for many years after the patient was first exposed. Patients who develop HPV-related head and neck cancer often do not have the same lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking, heavy drinking, or exposure to toxic chemicals that may appear in other patients with head and neck cancer. It is important to be aware of your risk factors and not dismiss the prospect of cancer, especially if you have symptoms that worry you.

A neck mass in an adult should be assumed to be cancer and not ignored – although some of these may not be cancer, delay in diagnosis can lead to serious negative impacts on health or more significant side effects from treatment.

At this time, more than half of the newly-diagnosed cases of oropharyngeal cancer in the United States are caused by HPV. The number of HPV+ tumor patients is increasing rapidly.

Fortunately, HPV+ tumors are often more responsive to treatment, and most patients will have a positive outcome.

Are HPV+ tumors treated differently?

HPV+ cancers are staged slightly differently than HPV- cancers.

HPV+ tumors also respond better to different treatment protocols than HPV- tumors. Patients with HPV+ oropharyngeal cancer often find success with either a minimally-invasive robotic surgery combined with low dose radiation or a combination of radiation and chemotherapy.

At Siteman, we routinely test tumors to determine their HPV status. This ensures that patients receive the best possible treatment plan for them while avoiding under or overtreating disease


HPV vaccination

The HPV vaccine, released in 2006, has proven highly effective at eliminating the strains of HPV that cause cancer, including head and neck cancer.

At this time, the CDC recommends HPV vaccination for children starting at ages 11-12. The vaccine is given in either two or three doses.

Adults up to the age of 26 are also encouraged to get the HPV vaccine.

The vaccine works best if the patient has not already been exposed to HPV through sexual activity, so that is why it is typically not recommended for older adults. However, if you have not received the vaccine and would like to, it’s worth talking to your doctor, even if you are older than 26. Your doctor may decide that you could still benefit from vaccination.