Understanding The HPV Link To Cancers
- Lisa Gooddy, 51, is a tonsil cancer survivor. Her first symptom of the disease was a sore throat. She’s now happily in remission and urging other to pay attention to their mouths.
- Gooddy says her cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
- The most common symptom of tonsil cancer is an enlarged tonsil, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Other tonsil cancer symptoms include hoarseness, a lump in the neck or throat, a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing and ear or jaw pain.
- Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, but people should also be aware that HPV puts both men and women at risk of developing several other cancers as well including cancers of the vagina, penis, anus and throat.
- Nearly every sexually-active person will get the HPV infection at some point in their lives, but, thankfully, we have HPV vaccines.
Gooddy grew up having chronic sore throats. When a white patch appeared on her tonsil about a year before her diagnosis in 2019, however, she was inclined to see her general practitioner.Read More
Doctors tried to prescribe her antibiotics, but they didn’t help. Eventually, her lymph nodes became increasingly swollen too. It wasn’t until the mother of three saw a specialist in 2020 that she received an accurate diagnosis: stage two tonsil cancer.
“I would like to say I am quite an optimistic person, although no one wants to hear those words,” she said of learning her diagnosis. “But, I think I’d had issues for so long, it wasn’t a surprise because I knew there was something wrong.”
To treat the 2.4-inch lump on her tonsil, which she says was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), Gooddy underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Radiation, in particular, has left her with very troublesome side effects.
“Somebody said that [radiation is] actually like you think about your mouth or skin being microwaved, basically that’s what’s happening,” she said. “One of the really awful known side effects of the treatment is that you don’t have any saliva glands and constantly have a dry mouth.”
“Having a dry mouth all the time is really awful. It affects your speech, ability to eat, talk. I can’t lick an envelope.”
Gooddy has also been forced to take tablets to keep her mouth from getting too dry and restrict her diet. Since her treatments, she’s lost lost about 42 pounds.
“It affects so many things: If I’m going out, say to a restaurant, there potentially could be nothing on the menu that I could eat because I can’t have pepper,” Gooddy said. “I ordered broccoli in a restaurant but it was al dente, and because I was hungry, I swallowed it, but I couldn’t breathe, so my husband had to do the Heimlich maneuver on me because it was lodged in my throat.”
She still struggles with the day-to-day effects of cancer treatment, but Gooddy is happily in remission as of June. And as a tonsil cancer survivor, she wants to warn other people to pay attention to any possible signs of cancer in their bodies.
“Check your mouth — it’s a cancer that people don’t seem to know about, and it takes two minutes to check your mouth, throat and neck for any changes,” she said. “And if there’s any sore areas or those that look different, go and see your GP and dentist, and if they don’t think it’s anything, but you’re still not happy, ask for a referral — don’t be put off.”
Learning about Tonsil Cancer
Tonsil cancer is a form of oropharyngeal cancer that occurs when the cells that make up the tonsils grow out of control and form lesions or tumors. Oropharyngeal cancer is a cancer oropharynx – the middle portion of the throat (pharynx), beginning at the back of the mouth which includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils and the soft palate.
The most common symptom of tonsil cancer is an enlarged tonsil, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. If both tonsils are swollen or enlarged, the problem is less likely to be tonsil cancer, but you should still bring up the change to your health with your doctor.
Other tonsil cancer symptoms include:
- a lump in the neck or throat
- a persistent sore throat
- difficulty swallowing
- ear or jaw pain
Tonsil cancer is becoming increasingly common in the United States. It is often caused by past infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
What Is HPV?
Nearly every sexually-active person will get HPV at some point in their lives, but most people with the infection do not know they have it and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. The virus is spread via sexual activity and can manifest as warts on your genitals or mouth.
When people talk about HPV and cancer risk, they tend to focus on cervical cancer. And while it’s true that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, people should also be aware that HPV puts both men and women at risk of developing several other cancers as well including cancers of the vagina, penis, anus and throat.
“The fastest-growing segment of the people developing oral cancers are young non-smokers,” Dr. Ho told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “HPV, a very common virus, one responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers, is now identified as a cause of this rapid rise of oral cancers.”
Learning about the HPV Vaccines
Thankfully, we have three types of HPV vaccines – Gardasil 9, Gardasil and Cervarix. All three went through years of extensive safety testing before being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the CDC reports that HPV vaccination has the potential to prevent more than 90 percent of HPV-attributable cancers.
The HPV vaccines, like other immunizations that guard against viral infection, stimulate the body to produce antibodies that attack if they encounter the HPV infection by binding to the virus and preventing it from infecting cells. HPV vaccines do not prevent other sexually transmitted diseases or treat existing HPV infections/HPV-caused disease, but their implementation can reduce the rates of certain cancers.
And while Dr. Susan Vadaparampil, the associate center director of community outreach, engagement and equity at Moffitt Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet there are few medical strategies that totally prevent against getting cancer in the first place, she emphasized that data from countries with high rates of vaccine coverages shows decreases in HPV-related pre-cancer and cancer – particularly so in the case of cervical cancer.
“We have a safe and effective vaccine to prevent HPV-related cancer,” Dr. Vadaparampil told SurvivorNet. “It is widely available, and costs are typically covered by private or public insurance.”
Eileen Duffey-Lind, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Boston Children’s Hospital, echoed Dr. Vadaparampil’s sentiment.
“No one should die of a preventable cancer like those tied to HPV, especially since we have a highly effective and safe vaccine available,” Duffey-Lind previously told SurvivorNet.
Who Should Get the HPV Vaccine?
According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine is recommended for all preteens (both girls and boys) 11 to 12 years old in two doses administered between six and 12 months apart. The series of shots can also be started as early as 9 years old.
That being said, the CDC also says that teens and young adults through age 26 who didn’t start or finish the HPV vaccine series also need the vaccine. And people with weakened immune systems or teens and young adults who start the series between the ages of 15 and 26 should get three doses instead of two.
Additionally, the HPV vaccine is sometimes administered in adults up to 45 years old, but it is not recommended for everyone older than 26. Still, a person older than 26 might decide to get vaccinated after talking to their doctor about possible benefits even though it is less effective in this age range since more people have already been exposed to HPV by this time.
What Are The Possible Side Effects?
With more than 120 million doses of HPV vaccines distributed in the United States, there is plenty of data showing the safety of HPV vaccines. But, like any vaccine, there are possible side effects.
According to the CDC, the most common side effects are pain, redness or swelling in the arm where the vaccine was given, dizziness, fainting (which is more common among adolescents after receiving any vaccine), nausea and headache. With the exception of fainting, there have been no confirmed adverse HPV vaccination side effects occurring at higher than expected rates.
Anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction, occurs very rarely after any vaccine – including HPV vaccines. The CDC says that anaphylaxis following vaccination in the U.S. has a reported rate of three cases per one million doses administered.
HPV Vaccine Hesitancy
Doctors say the benefit of having your child get the HPV vaccine outweighs any possible concerns, but timing is important. Duffey-Lind says the immune response is “significantly stronger” in those vaccinated before age 15.
“The greatest benefits for HPV vaccination occur when adolescents are vaccinated at younger ages,” Dr. Vadaparampil previously told SurvivorNet. “Their immune response is better, and they are less likely to have been exposed to the virus. Also, two doses are required if the vaccine series is started at age 14 or before, compared to three doses required after that age. Thus, waiting for a child to be older, may lead to missed opportunity to be maximally protected.”
So why are people hesitant to protect themselves and their children? One reason may be that there is a myth that that the HPV vaccine can cause autism.
“The HPV vaccines do not cause autism, there’s always a risk of some vaccine-related side effects … local site injection pain, some redness, some swelling,” says Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. “There are no syndromes such as autism or other neurologic symptoms that have been linked to the HPV vaccines.”
Dr. Geiger also wants people to remember that, although you might not want to think about it, your children will likely participate in sexual activities at some point in their lives. Refusing to vaccinate your children denies them available protection from HPV-linked diseases, and that should be more important than not wanting to think about your kids ever having sex.
“The fact is that the majority of us are going to participate in sexual activity at some point in our lives,” Dr. Geiger said. “It’s unreasonable to think that just because your child isn’t engaging in sexual activity now that they won’t later in life.”