Oral Cancer On The Rise In Younger People - What You Should Know

What Doctors And Scientists Know

The rate of mouth and throat cancers (oropharyngeal) are on the rise at an alarming pace in a younger group of patients.  What was once a problem for the older smoker and heavy alcohol consumer is now attacking younger and younger patients.

The Word Health Organizaion has formally recognized Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) as a risk factor for developing oropharyngeal cancer.  This affects the base of the tonge, tonsills and throat.  It is known that more of these cancers are caused by HPV than previous years.

Why HPV & Why Now?

The best guess scientists have is that there is an increase in oral sex practices at younger ages than in previous decades.  The tissue in the back of the mouth (base of tounge and tonsill region) have similar characteristics as the cervix and vaginal opening.  The link between cervical cancer and HPV has long been known.

HPV causes a faster rate of damage and mutation (negative changes) in the cells of the back of the oral cavity.  Scientists believe this is partly responsible for the dramatic increase in age-adjusted rates of HPV cancers of this region of the body.

Some Good News!

Most patients with HPV associated oral cancers respond rapidly to standard treatments and have excellent cure rates.  Typically, treatment consists of removing the cancer (tonsillectomy) followed by radiation and chemotherapy (drug treatment to kill any remaining cancer cells).  Several recent studies cite a 92% plus cure rate.  Doctors and researchers are looking into what type of chemotherapy to use to treat these cancers.  The current regimens utilize the same multidrug regimine used to treat cervical cancer.  It is hoped that less drugs will be required and this may decrease some of the side effects of these potent anticancer drugs.

What About The Vaccine?

There are two options for HPV vaccination - Gardasil & Cervarix.  The initial recommendations were for vacinnation of all adolecent girls to prevent cervical cancer.  Recently (Oct 2011), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) extended the recommendations to include boys and young men.  These vaccines can help prevent anal and throat cancer as well.  There are many different strains of the HPV virus, but these vaccines protect against HPV 16 which is the type associated with mouth and throat cancers.


As the medical and research community looks further into this imporant issue, we are learning the early detection and screening is key for a good outcome.  Doctors and Dentists routinely examine patients mouth, throat and neck regions during a patient's office visit.  The presence of a firm, marble-like mass or swelling in the neck region is a key component of detecting these cancers. Researchers are also exploring whether a simple saliva test could detect the presence of HPV infections.  Currently, most are diagnosed by biopsy (obtaining a tissue sample).

Ask Your Doctor

If you have a child, it is an excellent discussion to have with your family doctor or pediatrician regarding having your child vaccinated for HPV.  Think of it this way- children all get periodic tetanus boosters to prevent a potentially deadly infection (tetanus), why not add protection for the very common HPV virus and perhaps prevent a devestating oral cancer from even starting!