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Head and Neck Cancer Prevention


It’s Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Every year, more than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, affecting their nasal cavity, sinuses, larynx, throat, salivary glands and mouth, according to the American Cancer Society. More risk factors have been identified, and efforts being made against these diseases are beginning to show promise.

“Tobacco and alcohol use are the risk factors traditionally associated with the development of head and neck cancer,” said Hugh Hetherington, MD, of Bozeman Health Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. “Now, human papilloma virus (HPV) is recognized as an important cause of head and neck cancer as well, typically diagnosed in younger patients without traditional risk factors for head and neck cancer.”

HPV is common and contagious. While 90% of infected individuals are able to clear the virus within two years of infection, 10% are at risk for developing HPV-related cancers. HPV is most common in women in their mid-twenties and gradually decreases with age. The incidence in men is stable across all age groups.

“Human papilloma virus-related head and neck cancer is a growing epidemic,” Dr. Hetherington said. “Historically, the incidence of head and neck cancer paralleled the use of tobacco, with a lag of approximately 10-15 years. Today, up to 25% of head and neck cancers are caused by HPV and up to 80% of tonsil and tongue based cancers are caused by HPV.”

The good news, according to Dr. Hetherington, is that patients with HPV-related head and neck cancers have better survival rates, with a three-year survival rate of 82.4% versus 57.1% for non-HPV-related head and neck cancers.

And currently, there are two vaccines that can protect against HPV infections. Large trials have not evaluated the vaccines’ ability to prevent HPV-related head and neck cancer, but have demonstrated the positive effect of both vaccines in preventing certain types of lesions.

The current vaccines are not effective for treating existing infections or HPV-related diseases. Treatment of established disease requires activation of a different type of immune response that can recognize and eliminate virus-infected cells. These HPV therapeutic vaccines are currently undergoing clinical trials, and scientists hope to present more successes soon.
Categories: Simply Healthy