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HPV: The Virus is Causing a Rise in Tongue and Throat Cancer

Despite the number of anti-smoking campaigns in the U.S., doctors aren’t seeing a corresponding decrease in tongue and throat cancer patients. The culprit is a common sexually transmitted viral infection called human papillomavirus (HPV), more commonly associated with cervical cancer.
“Many studies have established a strong connection between HPV and oral-related cancers,” says Ho-Sheng Lin, M.D., leader of the Head and Neck Multidisciplinary Team and associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Karmanos Cancer Center. “Currently, about 60 to 70 percent of cancers involving the back of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx) are caused by the HPV virus and this incidence is increasing on a yearly basis”
Researchers attribute the rise in HPV-related oral cancer cases to changes in sexual habits, although they don’t know why it affects certain people more than others. HPV-positive cancer patients are typically well-educated white men in their 40s and 50s. Doctors do know that patients with HPV-positive oral cancer are more responsive to treatment.
“The cure rate is as high as 90 percent, compared to about 50 percent for smoking-related oral cancers,” Dr. Lin says. “Depending on the stage of the disease, it can be cured through surgery or radiation alone, or a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.”
Know the Symptoms
Tongue, throat and neck cancers aren’t always caused by smoking and drinking. Be aware of these common symptoms:
  • A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal
  • A persistent sore throat
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • A persistent lump or thickening in the cheek or neck
  • Numbness of the tongue
“It’s important to see a doctor if any of these conditions persist,” Dr. Lin says. “The sooner you see a doctor, the sooner you can get a correct diagnosis and receive treatment.”
For more information about head and neck cancer diagnosis or treatment, please call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266) or
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The Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Center is accredited by The Joint Commission.
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