Newswise — As we observe World Head and Neck Cancer Day 2020 (July 27), nationally known expert Tom Thomas, MD, MPH, has set out to clear up misunderstandings about how one type of head and neck cancer is related to human papillomavirus (HPV), which has historically been thought of primarily as a cause of cervical cancer.  Dr. Thomas is medical director, Head and Neck Reconstructive Surgery and Transoral Robotic Surgery, Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center and Carol G. Simon Cancer Center.  He is one of the leaders of the Atlantic HPV Center.

“The fact is, that HPV has increasingly become one of the major causes of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancer,” says Dr. Thomas.  “We are seeing an increasing number of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers, which affect the back of the tongue and tonsils.”

To educate both men and women about this topic, Dr. Thomas shares these facts:

  1. HPV-associated cancers of the head and neck have tripled in the past several decades, while other types of head and neck cancers have declined. According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV is now responsible for 70% or more of oropharyngeal cancers.
  2. Cancer of the oropharynx used to affect older men – longtime heavy smokers or drinkers. Many of today’s patients with HPV-associated throat cancer are men in their 40s and 50s.
  3. The incidence of head and neck cancers associated with HPV is expected to outnumber that of cervical cancer this year.
  4. There are no early warning signs that are specific to HPV-associated throat cancer. Symptoms can mimic a typical upper respiratory infection that is not getting better. Sometimes patients can have earache, hoarse voice and/or burning pain with swallowing. Other times there may be a painless lump in the neck or ulcer on a tonsil. When any of these symptoms persist for more than three weeks, it’s time to seek help.
  5. “HPV” includes a family of over 200 viruses. It is transmitted through direct contact. Most of us are exposed to these viruses once we become sexually active. Usually, we clear the virus through our immune system without even realizing its presence. In a minority of individuals, the virus evades our detection system and stays inside our cells for years. It may then cause warts, benign tumors or on rare occasions, cancer.
  6. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved expanding the HPV vaccine’s use to include women and men aged 27 through 45 years, with the vaccine now approved for children and adults 9 to 45 years old.
  7. Despite widespread recognition of the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine within the medical community, we still need to overcome the embarrassment and stigma associated with head and neck cancers caused by HPV – the most common sexually transmitted disease.
  8. We are many years into this growing silent epidemic, and the stigma shows no signs of abating. If you get HPV-associated cancer, or suspect you may have it, you are not alone. Do not be afraid to speak with your physician and your significant other. More importantly, get your children vaccinated.
  9. Treatments for these cancers have significantly improved in recent years, and may include minimally invasive robotic or laser surgery done through the mouth, targeted radiation therapy that spares healthy tissue, and chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
  10. The best treatment for HPV associated head and neck cancer is prevention through the HPV vaccine. Early detection may also result in effective treatment, and possibly a cure. If a physician discovers a lump or ulceration in your throat, he or she should refer you to a specialist: an otolaryngologist (ENT) or head and neck surgeon. Dentists can also detect suspicious-looking lumps or ulcers in the mouth.

“If you do not have symptoms, but you or someone you have been intimate with has a history of sexually transmitted diseases, ask your physician to examine your throat and neck area carefully,” adds Dr. Thomas.  


About Atlantic Health System Cancer Care

Atlantic Health System Cancer Care offers an unparalleled network of cancer specialists and resources for more than 70,500 patients annually through its flagship Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown and Overlook medical centers, as well as its comprehensive oncology programs at Chilton, Hackettstown and Newton medical centers. With more than 250 cancer specialists and medical professionals, all five hospitals and Atlantic Medical Group have been recognized nationally for their role in advancing the fight against cancer. 

Atlantic Health System Cancer Care is the lead affiliate of Atlantic Health Cancer Consortium (AHCC) - the only New Jersey-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP).  The NCORP develops and implements NCI cancer prevention, screening, care delivery, and treatment studies with leading healthcare systems across the state.  Atlantic Health System Cancer Care is affiliated with the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) of Phoenix, Arizona, and together they have created the Breakthrough Oncology Accelerator, a pioneering research and clinical collaboration designed to improve patient access to the most innovative and sophisticated therapies for cancer.


About Atlantic Health System

Atlantic Health System has a long-standing tradition of providing exceptional patient outcomes and experiences. Home to seven award-winning hospitals including Morristown Medical Center, the number one hospital in NJ according to U.S. News & World Report, Castle Connolly and Newsweek’s World’s Best Hospitals, the system has been ranked first in New Jersey in consumer preference by Monigle and first among health systems in New Jersey as a “best workplace” by both Modern Healthcare and Fortune Magazine. 

Many of the system’s programs have received national accolades and designations, including Morristown Medical Center’s Cardiology and Heart Surgery program ranked among the top 30 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report; Morristown Medical Center’s Orthopedics program ranked among the top 35 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and Atlantic Health System’s Cancer Care program, New Jersey’s first and only National Cancer Institute National Community Oncology Research Program. Additionally, Atlantic Health System Neuroscience at Overlook Medical Center, working with Atlantic Mobile Health, was the first in the nation to deploy and use portable Telestroke technology in ambulances for routine pre-hospital assessment of stroke patients. 

Powered by a passionate workforce of 17,000 team members and 4,800 affiliated physicians dedicated to building healthier communities, Atlantic Health System serves more than half of the state of New Jersey, including 11 counties and 4.9 million people. The system provides care for the full continuum of health needs across a wide array of settings, including Atlantic Medical Group, one of the largest multi-specialty practices in New Jersey with more than 1,000 physicians and providers, 12 urgent care centers, Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute, Atlantic Home Care and Hospice and Atlantic Anywhere’s Virtual Visits. Facilitating connections between these services on both land and air is the transportation fleet of Atlantic Mobile Health. 

With a clear sense of purpose and an unparalleled culture, Atlantic Health System attracts top leaders in the field of health care, from CEO Brian Gragnolati, who was Chairman of the American Hospital Association in 2019, to the numerous team members who serve as leaders across national clinical associations and research entities.