Mouth, throat cancers caused by HPV on the rise, especially among Canadian men

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Mouth and throat cancers caused by the human papilloma virus have been rising steadily over the past two decades, with a “dramatic” increase among Canadian men, according to a new report from the Canadian Cancer Society.

The special report on HPV-associated cancers, released Wednesday as part of the 2016 Canadian Cancer Statistics breakdown, says the rate of mouth and throat cancers in men is poised to surpass the rate of cervical cancer diagnoses in women.

Researchers and doctors have known for decades that certain strains of HPV – the most commonly sexually transmitted disease in Canada and the world — cause cervical cancer. But the latest Canadian cancer statistics show that only 35 per cent of HPV cancers are cervical, and that about 33 per cent of HPV cancers occur in males.

The latest data show that about one-third of all HPV cancers in Canada are found in the mouth and throat.

Between 1992 and 2012, the incidence of HPV-related mouth and throat cancers increased 56 per cent in males and 17 per cent in females.

In 1992, the age-standardized incidence rate (or ASIR) of those cancers was 4.1 per 100,000 Canadian males. In 2012, it was 6.4 per 100,000 males. In females, the rate was 1.2 in 1992 and 1.4 in 2012.

‘I thought I was done’

Three years ago, Dan Antoniuk noticed a lump on his neck and initially thought that it was just a swollen gland.

But when the Edmonton father went to see a doctor, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer, caused by HPV.

“I was devastated. I thought I was done,” Antoniuk, 61, told CTV News. “It shattered me, it shattered my family and affected everybody sitting in the waiting room.”

Antoniuk said that until his diagnosis, he had never heard of HPV cancers in men. His doctors told him that, despite the late stage of his cancer, his prognosis was still good with the right treatment. He underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and although the treatments took a toll on his body, he’s now doing well.

“The end result is I am here, I am healthy and I can do most of the same things I have done before,” he said. “The ultimate message is: Be aware of your body and be aware of the fact that this could be something more serious and there is hope now.”

Dr. Hadi Seikaly, a professor and oncology surgeon at the University of Alberta, said doctors are seeing more HPV-related cancers in both men and women.

“The surprising thing is that we’re just seeing the front end of the epidemic,” he told CTV News. “And it is an epidemic … cervical cancer rates are coming down and head, neck cancer rates are going up.”

Doctors say that oropharyngeal cancers (which include the back of the throat, the base of the tongue and the tonsils) and cancers of the mouth used to be mostly found in older patients who smoked, drank heavily or had other health issues. But it’s now more common to see HPV-related throat and mouth cancers in younger, otherwise healthy patients.

“HPV is without question driving the dramatic increase we are seeing in oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OPSCC),” Dr. Joseph Dort, the chief of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, told CTV News.

“Our most recent data shows that about 70 per cent of our new cases of this cancer are HPV positive. Recent studies suggest that oropharyngeal cancer will become the most common HPV-associated malignancy by the year 2020, surpassing cancer of the cervix,” he said in an email.

The changing face of the disease

Jennifer Cicci was shocked to learn that she had oral cancer caused by HPV after a lump appeared on the side of her neck in the fall of 2013. 

The dental hygienist and mother of four from Brampton, Ont., said she was an otherwise healthy woman in her 40s who didn’t have any of the typical risk factors associated with head and neck cancers.

Cicci’s surgeon removed a baseball-sized mass of tissue from the back of her throat and a section from the back of her tongue. She also underwent laser surgery and radiation, with painful side effects. 

Still, she feels she “got off easy,” despite the entire ordeal.

In some cases, mouth and neck cancer treatments can have devastating effects on a patient’s ability to speak and eat. Some patients have had parts of their tongues and even their voice boxes removed. 

The good news, doctors say, is that HPV-related cancers seem to be more treatable. More than 80 per cent of patients will survive if the cancer is caught in time.

“I felt like having this gave me an opportunity to raise awareness of something that I felt was becoming an epidemic,” Cicci said.

Dr. Brian O’Sullivan, a head and neck cancer specialist at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, said that HPV infections in the throat and mouth are largely linked to sexual contact, but he has also seen patients who have had very few sexual partners and little experience with oral sex.

Calls for more widespread HPV immunization

The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that nearly 4,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with an HPV-caused cancer (that can include cervical, vaginal, anal and oral) and about 1,200 will die from it in 2016.

The society is focusing its messaging on cancer prevention and informing the public about the HPV vaccine. The two HPV vaccines approved by Health Canada are Gardasil and Cervarix.  

HPV immunization is already available through publicly-funded school programs across the country, starting between Grades 4 and 7, up to age 13. But while the vaccine is offered to girls in all provinces and territories, only six provinces — Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec – also offer it to boys.

The Canadian Cancer Society is calling on the remaining provinces and territories to expand HPV immunization to boys.

Robert Nuttall, the society’s assistant director of health policy, also said that adults should talk to their doctors to see whether they can benefit from the HPV vaccine. However, there is currently no scientific evidence showing the benefits of HPV vaccines in older adults.

In Canada, Gardasil is approved for use in females aged 9 to 45, and males aged 9 to 26. Cervarix is approved for use in females between the ages of 10 and 25, but is currently not approved for boys and young men.

The vaccine works best in people who have not been exposed to HPV. That’s why it is given to school-aged children and teens as a preventative measure.  

It will be a while before scientists can conclusively determine whether HPV vaccines can prevent throat and neck cancers, since it can take many years for an HPV infection to cause malignancies. 

In the meantime, Dr. Seikaly says it’s important for Canadians to understand this disease could happen to anybody, because the modes of HPV transmission aren’t fully understood.

“They need to understand the signs and symptoms of it. And those include pain in your throat, difficulty swallowing, neck masses, ulcers in your mouth and throat,” he said. “And they need to make sure during their physical that doctors do look in their mouth and their throat.”

Early symptoms of mouth and throat cancers can often be vague, but they also include white or red patches inside the mouth or on the lips, persistent earaches and loose teeth.

As a dental hygienist who was also a cancer patient, Cicci urges regular exams of the mouth and throat during dental visits.

“What I try to do is to break down the stigma that is attached to (HPV),” she said. “The fact of the matter is, while most of the time it is still being sexually transmitted … we don’t know all the modes of transmission.”

Other notable statistics from the 2016 cancer report:

  • Cancer is still the leading cause of death in Canada, causing 30 per cent of all deaths.
  • An estimated 2 in 5 Canadians are expected to develop cancer in their lifetime, and an estimated 1 in 4 will die from cancer.
  • An estimated 202,400 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer, and 78,800 will die of cancer in 2016.
  • Lung, colorectal, breast and pancreatic cancer are the most common causes of cancer death, with lung cancer accounting for more than 25 per cent of all cancer deaths.
  • More than 60 per cent of Canadians diagnosed with cancer today will survive at least five years. But the survival rates vary greatly depending on the type of cancer involved.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip