A recent article in the Washington Post that oral cancer is becoming more prevalent in men. The data, culled from insurance claims, shows a 61% increase in oral cancer in men from 2011 to 2015. The article suggests that the prevalence of Human Papilloma Virus (“HPV”) is part of the reason.
HPV is a group of viruses named for the warts (papillomas) it can sometimes cause. There are some strains of HPV that can also lead to cervical, anal, penile, and even oral cancers. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, or STI; in fact, it is so common, that most sexually active men and women have been exposed to it. Oftentimes, there are no symptoms of HPV infection, and one can exhibit symptoms long after exposure. The good news is that many HPV infections do go away, and do not cause cancer.
The Post’s article reports that although smoking rates have fallen, oral cancer incidence has increased. (Smoking, drink, and the two combined have traditionally been thought of as the main risk factors of oral cancer. There is no discussion of vaping or e-cigarettes in this article.) The article reports the findings of a study following young people that found a higher prevalence of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma caused by HPV16 in men compared to women, and that men were less likely to clear HPV infection. (There are other data from this study that I won’t discuss here.)
One of the reasons for the rise in oral cancer is that more young men and women engage in oral sex, thinking that it is safer, and, of course, oral sex cannot result in a pregnancy. The Post also discusses that younger men are also more likely to have more partners than older men.
The most important takeaway from this data and article is that disease does not discriminate. Risk factors such as tobacco use and drinking, while still important, are not the sole predictors. It’s also important to recognize that HPV affects men, too (remember: HPV is an equal opportunity infector). I am happy to discuss more about oral cancer and HPV with all my patients, and strongly encourage you to also consult with your physicians as well should you have any questions.