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How To Avoid Throat Cancer, Understanding HPV and More

Throat cancer and HPV

When a disease affects a celebrity, people are more likely to pay attention, and that’s the case with Michael Douglas and his claim that oral sex and HPV caused his throat cancer. Part of the lesson from this situation is learning how to avoid throat cancer, and it’s not just about HPV and sex.

What is the role of HPV in throat cancer?

According to the results of a new study appearing in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, there is a significant link between the presence of HPV (human papillomavirus) antibodies and development of throat cancer; more specifically cancer of the back of the throat, or oropharyngeal cancer. In fact, the authors found that one third of the people with throat cancer in their study were infected with a form of HPV.

HPV is typically spread through sexual (genital or oral) contact. The virus—of which there are more than 100 types-- is the main cause of cervical cancer. Specifically, strain HPV-16 is believed to be the culprit in about 60 percent of cervical cancer cases, 60 percent of oral cancers, and 80 percent of anal cancer.

In the new study, the scientists evaluated blood samples gathered from participants in an extensive prospective study on cancer. When they examined blood test results from 135 people who developed throat cancer and from 1,599 people who were cancer-free, they discovered that 34.8 percent of people with throat cancer had antibodies to one of HPV’s main proteins, called E6, while the same antibodies appeared in 0.6 percent of the cancer-free individuals.

According to Dr. Ruth Travis of the University of Oxford and one of the study’s authors, “These striking results provide some evidence that HPV-16 infection may be a significant cause of oropharyngeal cancer.” Practicing safe sex is always recommended, but even the use of condoms cannot guarantee the HPV organisms will not be passed between sexual partners. But HPV is not the only cause of throat cancer.

What about the HPV vaccine? According to Sara Hiom, the director of health information at Cancer Research UK, there is not yet enough research to know whether the HPV vaccine will protect against oral HPV infections and associated cancers, but you can be assured this question is being investigated.

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Other risk factors for throat cancer
Besides exposure to HPV, other risk factors for throat cancer include the following:

  • Smoking
  • Use of chewing tobacco
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • A diet deficient in fruits and vegetables

Clues that you may have throat cancer include experiencing a cough, hoarseness and other changes in your voice, trouble swallowing, sore throat, a sore or lump that does not go away, ear pain, and weight loss. If one or more of these indicators persist, you should see your healthcare provider.

To avoid throat cancer, lifestyle choices such as avoiding smoking and use of chewing tobacco, limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption, and including lots of fruits and vegetables (which are excellent sources of cancer-fighting phytonutrients) in your diet is an excellent start. And don’t forget to practice safe sex!

More about throat cancer
Throat cancer is a general term that refers to cancer that can develop in the tissues of the pharynx (the hollow channel that begins behind the nose and ends at the top of the esophagus) and cancer of the larynx, or voice box. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 26,190 new cases of throat cancer will be diagnosed in 2013, and that 6,130 individuals will die of the disease in the United States.

Throat cancer is not one of the top 10 cancers that affect men and women in the United States or the world. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you, so it is a good idea to be aware of how to recognize and avoid throat cancer.

BBC News
Kreimer AR et al. Evaluation of human papillomavirus antibodies and risk of subsequent head and neck cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2013 Jul 1 Epub ahead of print
National Cancer Institute

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