HPV-Linked Throat Cancer May Have Telltale Signs
Signs of potential trouble could be different in people without the virus, study suggests
An expert who reviewed the study called the findings "interesting," but said they should be interpreted with caution.
Larger studies are needed to confirm the results, said Maria Worsham, research director in the department of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at Henry Ford Hospital, in Detroit.
Plus, Worsham said, the symptoms these study patients reported are not unique to cancer. So people should not assume that a lump in the neck means they have cancer -- or oral HPV, she said.
Another expert not involved with the study said that a lump could indeed be an infection that just needs a round of antibiotics.
But if the mass persists, see your doctor again, added Dr. Dennis Kraus, director of the Center for Head and Neck Oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital, in New York City.
According to Kraus, the findings help "codify" what many doctors have noted: that people with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer tend to have no symptoms, but instead notice a lump.
The "good news," Kraus said, is that HPV-positive cancers generally have a better prognosis. Patients with HPV-negative cancers tend to have a more-aggressive disease -- and, therefore, obvious symptoms like an irritated throat and difficulty swallowing.
Kraus agreed with Day that the face of oropharyngeal cancer has changed from years ago. HPV-positive tumors are now more common than HPV-negative ones, he said.
According to the CDC, about 7 percent of Americans have oral HPV, though only 1 percent have the particular strain (HPV-16) that's linked to oropharyngeal cancer.
Usually, the immune system is able to clear HPV from the body, and most people never know they were infected.
But for reasons that aren't clear, some people harbor chronic HPV infections. Persistent infection with a cancer-linked strain is the big worry: Nearly all cases of cervical cancer, for instance, are caused by HPV.
There are, however, two vaccines against the most common cancer-linked HPV strains -- including HPV-16. Experts recommend all children ages 11 and 12 be vaccinated. Older girls and women up to age 26 should get "catch-up" shots if they've never been vaccinated. The same advice goes for boys and men ages 13 to 21.
The vaccines -- Gardasil and Cervarix -- are known to ward off genital and anal HPV infections. Studies on whether the vaccines prevent oral infections are just starting. But, Kraus noted, they do target the major HPV strain linked to oropharyngeal cancer.