The Kiss of Cancer

The Kiss of Cancer

In honor of Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, my colleague made an informative, yet very entertaining public service announcement video.

Take a look!

One of the highlights of the message is that several types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, and sinuses, can be caused by a virus known as human papillomavirus, or HPV.  This virus is widespread in the population, with nearly 80 million people in this country alone being infected.  Over 14 million teens get infected each year.  As with the better known herpes virus, HPV is transmitted by sexual contact or kissing.

In my practice, where I treat young children, I see how the HPV infection can be transmitted from mother to baby prior to birth, leading to papillomas, or warts, filling a child’s airway. These kids, often as young as 6 months old, develop chronic hoarseness from the warts filling their vocal cords, and, if left untreated, develop respiratory distress. Some can die if the disorder is missed. This becomes a lifelong disease for these children, where they need frequent surgeries and medical treatments to keep the disease at bay.  In many, the disease will subside in teen years, but some go on to have it through adulthood.  There are many treatments, but no cure.

Many head and neck cancers originate from HPV.  Patients with these cancers are usually younger than traditionally seen cancer patients.  They are usually non-smokers, and rarely drink alcohol.  As HPV is so prevalent in the adult population, we are all at risk for these types of cancers.

Now here’s the good news for the future of both kids with HPV-related airway blockage and for head and neck cancer patients: There is a vaccine to prevent HPV infection.  It’s trade name is Gardasil(R) and it is recommended in all kids, starting as young as age 9 years.  Initially, it was recommended for girls alone, as HPV is also  associated with cervical cancers. But with increased awareness of the importance of HPV prevention, it is now recommended for both boys and girls. As with any vaccine, there are risks with this one, including injection site reactions, fevers, and other exceedingly rare serious reactions.  But the benefits outweigh the risks by far. Widespread use of the vaccine can prevent up to 30,000 cancers per year in both men and women.  It can also prevent up to 3,000 newly diagnosed children each year from developing life-threatening airway obstruction and a childhood filled with frequent trips to the operating room for throat surgery. While the anti-vaxx community has focused on bashing vaccines for babies, they are also up in arms with the HPV vaccine.  It doesn’t cause autism, and it doesn’t have mercury.  It’s just an anti-viral vaccine, so give us a break on this one. Do us a favor and put the airway surgeons and cancer surgeons out of business in treating HPV-related disease.  We and our patients will thank you for it.

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