Oropharynx cancer is found in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils. There are two main types of oropharynx cancer: HPV positive and HPV negative.
HPV positive oropharynx cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus and is the type that is on the rise. “It’s now the dominant type that we see in patients,” said Dr. Brian Cervenka, a CU Medicine otolaryngologist and head and neck surgical oncologist.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharynx cancer in the US.
HPV positive oropharynx cancer “tends to be seen in younger patients, not necessarily those with a history of smoking, and presents in a very different way,” Cervenka added.
We talked with him about the treatment and prevention of HPV positive oropharynx cancer.
HPV positive oropharynx cancer is very treatable and curable. It’s typically first noticed by patients as a subtle swelling in their neck. “That’s actually a node, a lymph node, that’s become enlarged from the cancer itself,” explained Cervenka.
Treatment is similar to other cancers. Patients are typically offered surgery or laser treatments to remove cancerous cells, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of all of those treatments.
For some patients, surgical management might be all that is needed. “We offer minimally invasive surgical approaches that are not available in most places. That can be really beneficial because it can allow patients to reduce the number of treatments they need, sometimes surgery alone,” Cervenka said.
“This type of cancer is best prevented by vaccination,” explained Cervenka.
The HPV vaccine was developed to prevent cervical cancer, but it also protects against the types of HPV that cause oropharynx cancer.
The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for 11- to 12-year-olds and everyone up through 26 years old if not vaccinated already. The vaccine is also recommended for some adults 27 to 45 years old who are not already vaccinated and are at risk of HPV infections.
HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. Limiting sexual partners and using proper protection is another way to prevent HPV infection.
If you have any symptoms that worry you, be sure to see your doctor right away.