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Dr. Pitman discusses HPV and Head & Neck Cancers

September 28, 2017
Protect yourself against HPV infection to lower your risk of these cancers

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. In fact, 90% of sexually active adults have been exposed to HPV. For most of those people, the infection clears up on its own without treatment. But some people develop a persistent infection, which, depending on the strain of the virus that causes the infection, can cause genital warts, cervical, penile, and anal cancer, and cancers at the base of the tongue or in the tonsils. Dr. Karen Pitman, medical director of the Milton J. Dance Jr. Head and Neck Center at GBMC, talked with Good Morning Maryland host Ashley James about HPV and head and neck cancer, the steps you can take to protect yourself against HPV, and the factors that can increase your risk for developing these cancers.

“There are 150 different strains of HPV,” explains Dr. Pitman. “However, only a handful of those strains have been linked to the development of head and neck, cervical, penile, and anal cancers. The infection can last 10 years or more with no symptoms. Cervical cancer screenings can catch the infection early on, but for head and neck cancer, there is no equivalent of the PAP test, so most people who are infected with HPV are unaware of their infection.”

Dr. Pitman also discusses why getting vaccinated against HPV between the ages of 9 and 14 is the key to lowering your risk of cancer in the future, what factors increase your risk of being infected with HPV, and the stunning 225% increase in head and neck cancers caused by HPV since the 1980s.

“The approach to treating head and neck cancers is a multidisciplinary one,” adds Dr. Pitman. “Depending on the stage of the cancer, patients may receive treatment from a medical, surgical, and/or radiation oncologist who specializes in oropharyngeal cancers, as well as working with speech and language pathologists to improve speech and swallowing after treatment, nurses who specialize in working with head and neck cancer patients, social workers, and oncology registered dietitians. If you develop a lump in the neck, ongoing sore throat, muffled voice, trouble swallowing, or ongoing pain in one ear for three to four weeks without improvement, you should see a head and neck specialist to be evaluated. The best prognosis is early diagnosis.”
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