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Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
The comments were made Wednesday at a news conference held by the American Association for Cancer Research to discuss research into the role of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) in head and neck cancer.
Increasing rates of HPV infection, spread through oral sex, is largely driving the rapid rise in oropharyngeal cancers, which include tumors of the throat, tonsils, and base of the tongue, said Scott Lippman, MD, who chairs the thoracic department at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
"The percentage of oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV positive is much higher now than it was 20 years ago," he said. "This is a real trend, and that is why there is concern of an epidemic given that fact that oropharyngeal cancer is increasing at an alarming rate."
Changing Face of Throat Cancer
American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Otis Brawley, MD, said as many as half of the oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed today appear to be caused by HPV infection.
"Changing sexual practices over the last 20 years, especially as they relate to oral sex, are increasing the rate of head and neck cancers and may be increasing the rates of other cancers as well," he said.
He added that there is some evidence that oral HPV infection is also a risk factor for a type of cancer of the esophagus.
"The paradigm is changing," Lippman said. "The types of patients we are seeing now with oropharyngeal cancers are not the patients we have classically seen who were older, smokers, and have lots of other problems. These are young people, executives, a whole different population."
Oral Sex Not Safe Sex
The experts agreed that it is critical for the public to understand that oral sex doesn't equal safe sex.
"There is a huge public health message here," Brawley said.
SOURCES: News conference, American Association for Cancer Research. Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer, American Cancer Society, Atlanta. Scott Lippman, MD, chair, department of thoracic head and neck medical oncology, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
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