Throat cancer caused by HPV may be less deadly

Jan. 13 (UPI) — People with a type of throat cancer caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV, appear to have a better chance at surviving the disease than those with other types of tumors, a new study has found.

In research published Monday in the journal CANCER, the authors noted that those whose oropharynx cancer was not caused by HPV were three times as likely to die from the disease.

Oropharynx cancer, a type of throat cancer that occurs in the tonsils or base of the tongue, is one of the most common head and neck cancers and it has been linked with smoking.

“The study is really eye-opening when it comes to the high risk of death among patients with HPV-negative oropharynx cancer,” co-author Danielle N. Margalit, of the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, said in a press release.

An estimated 50,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with oropharynx cancer, and its incidence is increasing. According to Margalit, recent research suggests that approximately 75 percent of these cancers are due to infection with HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can mostly be prevented through vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that HPV infections can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in women and the penis in men. Both men and women with HPV are also at higher risk for oropharynx cancer.

The agency notes that cancer often takes years to develop after a person gets HPV, and it recommends vaccination against HPV for children 11 to 12 years of age.

For their study, Margalit and her colleagues analyzed information on 4,930 U.S. patients who were diagnosed with non-metastatic oropharynx cancer in 2013 and 2014, including 3,560 whose cancers were HPV-positive and 1,370 whose cancers were HPV-negative. Patients were followed for a median of 11 months.

They found that those whose cancers were HPV-positive had a lower risk of dying from any cause within two years — 10.4 percent versus 33.3 percent — and a lower risk of dying from head and neck cancer — 4.8 percent versus 16.2 percent. Study participants who were HPV-positive also had a lower risk of dying from cancers other than head and neck cancer.

“The information can be put to use by clinicians who see patients after treatment,” Margalit said. “They need to be vigilant not just about head and neck cancer recurrence, but also about screening for other cancers and non-cancer comorbidities that can influence patients’ risk of early death, and they should counsel patients on addressing modifiable risk factors.”