A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that the same types of human papilloma virus (HPV) that cause cervical cancer are the most vital predictor of survival for people diagnosed with oropharyngeal (mouth, head and neck) cancer. Analysis of 323 patients with advanced (stage III or IV) oropharyngeal cancer indicated that after three years of treatment, 82 percent of patients with HPV-positive tumors were still alive, compared with 57 percent of patients with HPV-negative tumors.
This is a fairly large trial from a multi-center group, and it was further found that patients who were positive for HPV and smokers had a worse prognosis than those who were HPV+ and non-smokers, although they still fared better than the HPV-negative/ smokers group, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross explains.
The purpose of the trial was to correlate HPV status and prognosis in head and neck cancer, states Dr. Ross. The editorial, however, did state that approximately 95 percent of HPV+ cancers contain strains of HPV which are specifically targeted by two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix.
But ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan says the article didn t mention the obvious cause of how HPV is transmitted unprotected oral sex. There is no question but that s one of the common ways HPV can be transmitted. Oropharyngeal cancer used to be diagnosed primarily in older male, long-term smokers, but now, this malignancy is presenting in non-smoking, middle-aged women and men. There have been a couple of provocative articles on this subject, but generally speaking, this risk factor for oral cancers is not well publicized. It s particularly important to get this message to teenagers who think oral sex is not sex and thus carries no risks.
So what s the bottom line? While all oral cancers are bad, the ones that are caused by HPV have a better outcome than those that are related to smoking, says Dr. Ross, who advises people to avoid oral cancer by not smoking and getting vaccinated against HPV before sexual activity of any kind.