I’ve seen the uptick in HPV-related oral cancers here at home. This is the third year we’ve focused on oral cancer awareness in April at Turville Bay. Here’s why.
With more than 150 Human Papilloma-related viruses identified it’s so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. We know that in most cases the body fights off the virus and infected cells go back to being normal. But in some cases the body is unable to clear the virus and abnormal cells can multiply, often with no symptoms, eventually forming a cancer. We know that virtually all of cervical cancers are caused by HPV-16, 18, and others, according to the National Cancer Institute. And that at least one of the same viruses, HPV-16, causes oral cancer. The virus can lie latent in the body, sometimes for decades, but it can also develop earlier in young people and we don’t know what triggers that. We know that the virus is sexually transmitted but there are questions regarding oral transmission through kissing. In fact, there’s a lot we don’t know. So let’s start with what we do know.
We all are at risk. Any person that is sexually active will probably have an HPV at some point. No longer a cancer in decline, HPV-related oral cancers are increasingly common. The alcohol/tobacco correlation still exists and there is some evidence that they create a synergy with HPV. Bottom line, we know that avoiding the excessive is smart. Multiple sexual partners, a weakened immune system, and poor dental and oral hygiene or chronic oral irritation all give this thug the opportunity it needs.
We believe that preventing oral cancer is possible. It involves personal care from each individual. As healthcare providers we can lead this battle: let’s be sure that oral cancer is part of the discussion with every patient. Awareness, risk factors, continual screening, and, yes, vaccination.
In the past we suggested that patients avoid excessive alcohol and tobacco and practice good oral hygiene. But what about explaining the benefits of using condoms correctly and consistently? Let’s share the math about reducing the number of sexual partners. And lets talk about the role oral sex plays in the spread of HPV-16. We screen for oral cancer as physicians, but the dentist or hygienist may be our best ally in uncovering oral cancers in patients early. And early detection could save that life.
Let’s vaccinate everyone. A vaccine that will prevent cancer because it protects your patient from HPV? It’s here now. It’s not perfect, but it is miles ahead of treating the cancer that may visit those that are not vaccinated. All boys and girls aged 9-12 years should be vaccinated. There are catch-up vaccines for males through age 21 and for females through age 26, if they did not get vaccinated when they were younger. The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men through the age of 26. It is also recommended for men and women with compromised immune systems (including people living with HIV/AIDS) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.
As a community we can do better. Together we can educate and vaccinate and improve the lives of our patients.