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HPV vaccine protects against viral cancers, including those of head and neck

While smoking-related head and neck cancer rates have declined in recent years, that drop has been offset by a rise in cancers caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Robert Kellman, MD

Robert Kellman, MD

Upstate experts say the HPV vaccine is a simple way to protect yourself.

The HPV vaccine was created to protect women from cervical cancer. Now that a strain of HPV has been linked to head and neck cancers, which can affect men and women, “Today everyone coming up from childhood today in our society should be vaccinated,” says Robert Kellman, MD, who leads Upstate‘s department of otolaryngology and communication sciences. “We believe if we get everyone vaccinated, in another generation we will no longer have the virally caused cancers.”

The same types of HPV that infect the genital areas can infect the mouth and throat, and some research suggests that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Seung Shin Hahn, MD

Seung Shin Hahn, MD

Head and neck cancers can affect the voice box, esophagus, throat, pharynx, nose and sinuses. Most of those caused by HPV arise at the base of the tongue and tonsils, in an area known as the oropharynx, notes Upstate radiation oncologist Seung Shin Hahn, MD.

Typically, such cancers are detected after a patient has soreness, trouble swallowing, a swelling that doesn‘t respond to antibiotics, ear pain or persistent hoarseness. Some people might assume they have a tooth problem and see their dentist, who can recognize the symptoms and refer patients to a specialist for testing and treatment.

Head and neck cancers that have not spread beyond the neck are most likely curable, says Kellman. Radiation and surgery are the usual treatment options, sometimes with assistance from chemotherapy. He notes that great advances have been made in reconstruction techniques after surgery to remove a tumor.

CDC recommends vaccine

The CDC recommends that all women ages 26 years and younger, and all men ages 21 years and younger, receive three doses of the HPV vaccine, beginning in childhood.

HLOA logoLayout 1Hear a radio interview about the HPV vaccine. This article appears in the winter 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine.