April: Oral Cancer Awareness Month

April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Why dedicate an entire month to oral cancer? Because an estimated 51,500 new cases of the disease are diagnosed each year in the United States. Of those, a staggering 20,600 patients are not expected to survive more than five years, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation. This is due to the fact that most oropharyngeal and oral cancers are not discovered until late in their development. 

In the past, oropharyngeal cancers were primarily caused by excessive smoking and drinking and a majority of the patients were over 50 years old. Today, this form of cancer occurs more frequently in younger, non smoking individuals due to HPV16, a high-risk strain of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

In fact, of the 51,500 new cases of oral cancer, nearly 70% of them are oropharyngeal cases caused by HPV16. 

What is HPV?

HPV is one of the most commonly transmitted STDs —  over 79 million Americans have it, with roughly 14 million new diagnoses each year. It is transmitted through direct genital contact, most often during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. 

HPV does not have a cure; your immune system should suppress the infection on its own. 

There are nearly 200 known strains of HPV that are further broken down into two designations: high-risk and low-risk. 

Low-risk HPV can lead to genital warts, though a majority of those with low-risk HPV often report no symptoms or outbreaks at all. 

High risk strains can develop into oral, anal and cervical/vaginals cancer, but it is extremely unlikely. Based on Centers for Disease and Control data from 2012 to 2016, about 44,000 HPV-associated cancers occur in the United States each year (about 25,000 women, and about 19,000 men), which means less than 0.003% of individuals develop oral cancer from HPV each year. 

Oral HPV

Oral HPV is transmitted to the mouth by oral sex. It is typically contained to the mouth and throat region, though it can spread to your genitals. About 10% of men and 3.6% of women have oral HPV. 

HPV and Oral Cancer

Not all cases of high-risk oral or oropharyngeal HPV infections are at risk to develop into cancer. 

HPV16 is related to the increasing incidence of oropharyngeal cancer and approximately 99 percent of people who develop an HPV oral infection will clear the virus on their own, according to the CDC.

As stated above, the chances of HPV developing into oral or oropharyngeal cancer is extremely low, however, because this type of cancer is so often fatal, the risk should not be ignored. 

Signs of HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancer tend to persist longer than three weeks. Symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • Lasting hoarseness or sore throat

  • A painless, firm, fixated lump felt on the outside of the neck, which has been there for at least two week

  • Constant coughing 

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • An earache on one side that lasts for more than a few days

  • A white or red sore on your gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth

  • Unusual bleeding or pain

HPV is Preventable

HPV is easily preventable by practiving safe sex and by getting vaccinated. 

The HPV vaccine was developed to prevent HPV-related cancers. The vaccine can be administered to anyone between the ages of 9 and 45, though the CDC recommends that boys and girls get vaccinated between the ages of 11 and 12. 

Get Tested for HPV

Most individuals will never know if they have or have had HPV; the infection is usually asymptomatic and will go away on its own. To protect yourself and your partner, you both should get tested before engaging in any sexual activities. 

Self Collect offers at-home DNA testing kits that detects HPV-16, HPV-18 and a pool of 12 other High-Risk HPV types. There is also the option for full genotyping, which detects over 40 high and low risk viruses. 

Their tests are sent discreetly through the mail and come with a prepaid package for you to send your sample back to their CLIA certified partner lab. Your results should be available within 14 business days (due to high demand), and will be viewable through the Self Collect online portal to ensure your privacy. You will be notified when your results are available. 

For more information or to find other testing options from Self Collect, visit their website.