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Johns Hopkins Health - Watch Your Neck

Spring 2010
Issue No. 8

Watch Your Neck

Date: April 23, 2010

couple from the back

More young people today are facing head and neck cancer diagnoses. The reason may surprise you

Ten years ago, the typical person with a head and neck cancer diagnosis was older—between ages 50 and 70—and had a history of smoking and alcohol use.

But today’s physicians are seeing an alarming trend of younger people without tobacco and alcohol history facing diagnoses.

The reason? HPV, or human papillomavirus, says otolaryngologist Wayne Koch, M.D. Although the often sexually transmitted HPV is typically associated with cervical cancer, 30 to 50 percent of head and neck cancer diagnoses today are HPV-related, Koch explains.

“We’re finding these cancers located in the tonsils and backs of tongues,” he says. “And we’re seeing lots of patients who are in their 30s and 40s.”

One of the problems, Koch says, is that most people don’t have symptoms. That means tumors aren’t being discovered until they’ve spread to lymph nodes in the neck. “At that point, you may feel a lump somewhere on your neck,” Koch says. “Then it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a doctor.”

The good news is that head and neck cancers related to HPV respond very well to radiation therapy. But it’s smart to think about safeguarding yourself or others in your family. Koch recommends the HPV vaccine—the same one given to young girls is also available for boys.

“It won’t be effective if someone’s already been infected with the virus,” Koch says. “But if administered at a young enough age, you decrease that likelihood.”

Researchers are working on a treatment vaccine, one that could be given even if you have the virus. But that’s a little ways away, Koch says.

Until then, it’s wise to understand how HPV is spread: through sexual or skin-to-skin contact in genital regions and through oral sex.


Warning Signs
Although most HPV-related head and neck cancers aren’t diagnosed until the diseases are well advanced, there are some early-warning red flags, including:

  • Chronic sore throats
  • Pain radiating to one or both ears
  • Change in tonsil size


Are you at risk for head and neck cancers? Schedule a screening today. Visit hopkinsmedicine.org/headneck or call 877-546-1872.

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