Not long ago, the prevention and treatment of deadly cancers linked to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) was thought to be mainly a women’s health issue. While HPV-linked cancers were known to affect people of either sex, the number-one cause of mortality from HPV infection was cervical cancer. But a recent study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine should serve as a loud wakeup call to sexually active men: The incidence of oral cancers in men caused by HPV is now surpassing that of cervical cancer in women.
According to the study, some 11 million men in the United States have oral HPV infections, as opposed to 3.2 million women. Higher-risk strains of the virus, which can cause cancers of mouth, tongue and throat, were present in 7.3% of men and 1.4% of women. HPV can be passed from person to person by intercourse as well as oral sex. And one particularly troublesome strain, HPV-16, is six times more common in men than in women.
In the past, medical professionals regarded tobacco use and alcohol consumption as the main risk factors for oral cancer. But today, the fastest-growing group of new oral cancer patients is young people of either sex, who are infected by sexually transmitted strains of the HPV virus. And that’s something we all need to learn more about.
At Dear Doctor, we have been following this disturbing trend for some time. In recent issues of Dear Doctor–Dentistry & Oral Health magazine, we mourned the loss of legendary slugger Tony Gwinn to oral cancer; presented a cancer survivor’s story; and previewed a new salivary test that could help identify people who need a biopsy. We have also emphasized the importance of routine dental exams in diagnosing and treating diseases like oral cancer—and in many cases, even preventing those diseases.
So let’s take this opportunity to review what you can do to fight oral cancer. First, practicing safer sex is important; it can help protect you from HPV and other diseases as well. Avoid overuse of alcohol and quit using tobacco of any type—including smokeless “dip.” Next, become more informed about oral cancer, including its causes, symptoms, prevention and treatment. (The articles on deardoctor.com are a great place to start.) Learn how to perform a self-exam for oral cancer—and make sure to get regular dental checkups, where your dentist can perform a thorough oral cancer screening. Finally, ask your health care provider about the HPV vaccine (Parents: that goes for boys as well as girls).
Oral cancer may be a scary thing to talk about—but it’s a conversation many of us need to have. The good news is that when oral cancer is found and managed early, the odds of successful treatment go way up.