Is a new wave of throat and tongue cancers on the rise – and people’s sexual habits are to be blamed?

More Australians with oropharyngeal cancer, for instance, are positive for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which suggests that the virus, not smoking or heavy alcohol consumption, is responsible for their illness. The two had been previously pinpointed for many head and neck cancers, including oropharyngeal cancer usually found in the back third of the tongue or tonsils.

A December 2014 study covering 515 patients with oropharyngeal cancer between 1987 and 2010 discovered that those with an HPV-related diagnosis rose from 20 percent (1987-1995) to 64 percent (2006-2010).

In the same period, throat cancer patients who had never smoked increased from 19 to 34 percent, again suggesting that HPV may have outperformed smoking and excess drinking as a cause of the cancer.

Oral sex has been believed by experts to be a likely HPV transmitter. Hollywood actor Michael Douglas, diagnosed in 2013 with HPV-related throat cancer, believed oral sex was the culprit.

While HPV-rooted throat cancer is on the rise in more people within the 40 to 60 age group, it should not be readily linked to oral sex because HPV may be communicated through simple kissing or hand-to-mouth contact, said Dr. Matthew Magarey of Melbourne’s Epworth and Peter MacCallum hospitals.

Magarey added that a tiny portion of the population will acquire an HPV-related cancer, including throat, cervical or anal cancer. He also highlighted improving treatments for cancer, which gives patients a high survival rate with early detection.

He said “a new robotic procedure” available at their hospital was assisting surgeons in precise and time-efficient removal of cancers.

HPV is a common occurrence that most adults will be infected with at some point in their lives. 2013 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 79 million Americans had HPV and 14 million become infected annually.

Someone can be infected with HPV for up to a decade before symptoms manifest.

According to Magarey, the most common early symptom of throat cancer is a lump in the neck persisting for over three weeks, as well as a sore throat that persists for over three weeks and swallowing difficulties. He recommended seeing a qualified ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon for proper throat examination, as “just looking in the mouth is not enough.”

Photo: Ed Uthman | Flickr 

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