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HeadLines - A Full-On Approach for the Other HPV Cancers

Summer 2010

A Full-On Approach for the Other HPV Cancers

Date: June 14, 2010

Sara Pai
“We want to provide patients with a social support system as they go through treatment,” says Sara Pai, “and help them understand the acute and long-term side effects of HPV-related illnesses and their treatments.”
Keith Weller

Even as the rate of tobacco-related head and neck cancer drops, another form continues to increase in frequency: the kind caused by human papillomavirus (HPV).

With an estimated 50 percent of Americans carrying the virus and that rate consistently rising, it’s not surprising that diagnoses of the cancers associated with HPV are on the rise as well. Of course, if there is any silver lining to an otherwise unfortunate statistic, it’s this: As physicians encounter more and more HPV-related head and neck cancer cases, they gain more knowledge and experience in treating it.

“At Hopkins, we have a very diverse group of physicians and other providers who have a lot of experience with this disease,” says head and neck surgeon Sara Pai, whose research focuses primarily on HPV-related tumors. “The thought is to bring these people together and focus our efforts on providing excellent care.” Pai’s goal is to create an official multidisciplinary center specifically targeted to treating virus-related head and neck cancers.

Because they are most often found within the tonsils or the base of the tongue, these tumors and their treatment carry myriad implications for oral functions such as swallowing and speech. As a result, they require a full complement of providers—including speech language pathologists, medical and radiation oncologists and surgeons—not to mention treatments and therapies. And, for optimal effectiveness, it works best when they’re all working in harmony with one another. It’s the kind of environment Pai’s multidisciplinary center would provide. “We really want to set Hopkins apart as an HPV center of excellence,” Pai explains. “We want to provide a one-stop shop for patients and to address any social concerns they might have,” which often include anxiety about the stigma attached to HPV, a sexually transmitted disease most often associated with genital warts and cervical cancer.

Other multidisciplinary centers at The Johns Hopkins Hospital are thriving, and Pai believes this one will have similar success. Such centers are rapidly becoming synonymous with best practice and are gaining traction and support from grants and philanthropists alike. Pai and her colleagues are now seeking funding and applying for grants to make the center happen.

Aside from affording top-notch clinical care, Pai says, a Johns Hopkins HPV-related head and neck cancer center would provide research opportunities that aren’t now available. “We want to bring patients in so we can better understand this disease,” she says. “A lot of HPV patients are treated in the community and so the information about this condition is limited based on the number of patients we may be seeing in any one academic medical center. The more patients we’re able to evaluate, the more answers we’ll have.”