HPV-Related Throat Cancer
- Just in time for Christmas, a New Jersey man is celebrating beating throat cancer with his incredible annual light display for all to enjoy.
- 66-year-old John Russo says his throat cancer was caused by HPV, also known as the human papillomavirus.
- From the 1980s to the 2010s, the rate of HPV-related head and neck cancers has gone up by about 300%, according to SurvivorNet expert Dr. Ted Teknos.
The most inspiring thing for 66-year-old John Russo? “Watching all the kids’ faces,” he tells SurvivorNet. “It’s great.”Read More
How did Russo’s epic Christmas light display come to be? Well, Russo and his girlfriend, Toni Alessio, have always been fans of The Great Christmas Light Fight, a reality television show where the hosts embark on a nationwide search for the best Christmas light display. In 2014, when Russo was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer, he told Alessio that if he beat the cancer, he would learn how to put up an elaborate light display in front of their Paramus, N.J., home — just like the ones on television.
In early 2015, Russo’s doctors told him he was free of cancer, so he immediately got to work on his light display, preparing for December. (Even though it was only February or March at the time.)
Sure, hanging Christmas lights definitely isn’t easy, but how elaborate could it be? Well, at Russo’s house, and most others on The Great Christmas Light Fight show, the lights pulse to the beat of various Christmas songs programmed by a computer.
“I knew nothing about computers (when I started),” Russo says with a laugh. Now, his Christmas light display, going on its seventh year, is the biggest it has ever been.
“It gets a little bigger every year,” he tells SurvivorNet. “It started to get really, really big last year. Cars were wrapped around the block! This year, we partnered with the (local) police and Toys for Tots.”
“I think it’s a cool idea that the Russos are bringing Christmas to their neighborhood and that they want to enhance not only their neighbors’ holiday, but help support our toy drive by collecting toys for the less fortunate,” Paramus Police Department Detective Lt. Jimmy Teehan tells the Pascack Valley’s Daily Voice. “We’re excited that John wants to support our program in a new and exciting way.”
This year, in front of his home at 181 Lozier Court, his front lawn is decked out with Christmas lights and inflatables. The light show lasts about 35-40 minutes, Russo says, and is on display seven days a week — 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, as well as 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Check out Russo’s Facebook page, Lights on Lozier Ct, for more information.
Christmas Lights for Cancer
In 2014, Russo was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer after noticing a lump that was starting to grow.
“It was a freak thing,” he tells SurvivorNet.
Russo tells the story of how he used to work with a man who had a lump on his throat, and the man “let this thing get to the size of a tennis ball before he got it checked out,” Russo says. It turns out the man had throat cancer, and luckily, he beat the disease.
About a year or two later, in the spring, Russo says that he was experiencing a “really bad” sore throat.” He didn’t think much of it, he says. He thought it was just allergies, swollen glands or any number of environmental causes. So his doctor put him on a round of antibiotics, but no luck.
Then, a tooth started to bother Russo. His doctor told him to visit the dentist, who also gave him a round of antibiotics. But again, no luck.
He then started to develop a lump on the outside of his throat.
“I said, ‘Screw this, I know what this is,’” Russo recalls. “Sure as shit,” he adds, it was throat cancer.
His doctor told him that the cancer was 99% curable, and shortly after Christmas 2014, he received the all-clear from his doctor after going through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. (During surgery, 25 lymph nodes were taken from Russo’s throat as it was discovered during the operation that the tumor was attached to his carotid artery and unable to be removed surgically. He then had seven weeks of drug therapy after the surgery.)
It was early 2015 when he was deemed free of cancer, but he still had to visit his doctor for consistent check-ups. Russo says at first, he was going in for new scans every three months, then every six months. He eventually graduated to getting annual scans; he only has about a year of scans left. And he’s thankfully shown no evidence of recurrence.
Russo says his throat cancer was caused by HPV, also known as the human papillomavirus.
It’s much more common to know someone who has throat cancer now-a-days than it was several decades ago. That’s because of the strong connection between throat cancer and HPV — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV may cause more than 90% of throat cancers — just like Russo.
“From the 1980s to the 2010s, the rate of HPV-related head and neck cancers has gone up by 300 percent,” Dr. Ted Teknos, a head and neck cancer specialist, and president and scientific director of University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, tells SurvivorNet.
The vast majority of humans in the United States — both men and women — will eventually get infected with HPV, according to Dr. Allen Ho, a head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai.
“The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer-inducing,” he tells SurvivorNet. “Probably less than 1 percent of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that somehow their immune system fails to clear, and over 15 to 20 years it develops from a viral infection into a tumor, and a cancer.”
It’s unclear whether HPV alone is enough to trigger the changes in your cells that lead to throat cancer or whether this happens in combination with other risk factors like smoking. Of course, some people who develop throat cancer have no known risk factors for the condition. Genetics can play a role in this cancer, too.
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff