HPV Throat Cancer: What it Is and How to Treat It

by | Feb 10, 2023 | CyberKnife Treatment, Head & Neck Cancer

Earlier this year tennis great Martina Navratilova announced she had been diagnosed with throat and breast cancer.

“This double whammy is serious but still fixable,” Navratilova, 66, said in a statement. “I’m hoping for a favorable outcome. It’s going to stink for a while, but I’ll fight with all have I got.”

Navratilova said her throat cancer is related to Human Papillomavirus or HPV.

If you don’t know much about HPV, its connection to throat cancer and treatment options, the experts at the CyberKnife Center of Miami want to set the record straight.

First a note about CyberKnife Miami. 

We are a state-of-the art cancer treatment center that uses a noninvasive radiation treatment system called stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) to treat cancerous and non-cancerous tumors as well as other medical issues where radiation is necessary. It delivers radiation directly to the tumor leaving the healthy surrounding tissue unharmed.

Now onto HPV.  


HPV: The Most Common STD 

It is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are more than 100 types of HPV. Of that, 40 types can spread through sexual contact – including to the mouth and throat through oral sex. In fact, 10% of men and nearly 4% of women have oral HPV. Many times, the virus will go away on its own, but it can persist and even turn into cancer. A patient with HPV is 20 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those without HPV, according to Dentistry IQ, but the process can take years.

“HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States,” according to the CDC.  


HPV Throat Cancer Symptoms and Detection

Some people have no symptoms.  However, others experience a sore throat that doesn’t go away, earaches, hoarseness, pain when swallowing, weight loss and just trouble swallowing.

Many oral cancer patients are older than 55, smoke and drink alcohol, but HPV cancer patients are different. They are often healthy and don’t drink or smoke.

HPV is associated with nearly 10,000 cases of head and neck cancers every year in the U.S., according to the CDC. It’s four times more prevalent in men than women.

Oftentimes dentists are the first to detect it and should always look for signs and symptoms during regular exams. 

If your dentist doesn’t, ask him or her to please do so. 


How Do I Know if I Have an Oral HPV Infection?

Early oral HPV infections do not typically cause any clinical signs or symptoms; thus, a visual exam would not detect people that may already have an infection caused by oral HPV. Today, however, a simple test called OraRisk® HPV is available that can detect oral HPV infections very early and is offered by some dentists.

Robert B. Gerber DDS, FACD at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles says, “We can perform this easy test as a part of your routine oral health exam. The OraRisk® HPV test uses a sterile saline rinse to determine if an oral HPV infection is present.”

He adds, “Here’s how the test is done.

We will ask you to “swish and gargle” with a sterile saline solution for 30 seconds. You will then empty the saline from your mouth into a small, coded container that will be sent to OralDNA® Labs for processing. We will receive your test results and contact you to discuss them.”


Who should be tested for Oral HPV?

Individuals with “traditional” risk factors for oral cancer such as smoking and alcohol,

males and females that are sexually active, and individuals with a family history of oral cancer.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “Very recent data (late 2007-2008) lead us to believe that the fastest growing segment of the oral cancer population is non-smokers under the age of 50”. However, all risk factors should be considered regardless of age group.


Why is it important for me to take the OraRisk® HPV test?

When oral HPV causes an infection, there are generally three possible outcomes:

It may “clear” without causing cell changes (usually occurs with the first 12 months), it may linger for long periods of time without any clinical signs or changes, or it may progress and alter cells, leading to malignant changes and cancer of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or throat.

Remember: Early detection and identification of the presence or absence of high-risk oral HPV types is good medicine. 

While it may be safe to say that most oral HPV infections do not cause cancer, oral HPV infection, especially those that are high-risk types, are cause for concern and should be monitored closely. Any change in color or texture of the tongue, mouth, or throat, or sores that do not heal, should be discussed with your dentist. Additional tests may be required to determine if an oral lesion is in fact cancer.


If I Test Positive for Oral HPV Does It Mean I Have Cancer?

No. A positive OraRisk® HPV test does not necessarily mean that cancer is present, nor does it mean that you will definitely develop cancer. The earlier the risk of oral cancer is detected or the earlier oral cancer itself is detected, the more likely it can be treated successfully. Oral HPV is now a known cause for cancers of the mouth and throat areas. The OraRisk® HPV test helps you better understand your risk for oral HPV-related oral cancer.

“HPV-positive head and neck cancers typically develop in the throat at the back of the tongue and near or in the folds of the tonsils, which makes them difficult to detect,” according to the American Dental Association.

Dentists also are encouraged to talk to their patients about the HPV vaccine.

The CDC recommends preteens ages 11 to 12 get the two-dose HPV vaccine to lower risk of oral cancers from HPV as well as cervical and other genital cancers.

HPV Throat Cancer Treatment

If you are diagnosed with HPV throat cancer, treatment depends on stage of your cancer. It can include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, according to the American Cancer Society.

CyberKnife can be used to treat certain types of HPV throat cancer, and studies are ongoing.

According to a study from May of 2022: “Cyberknife can be an efficacious treatment option for recurrent previously irradiated H&N (head and neck) carcinoma, especially for non-resectable tumors.”

“For deep-seated lesions CyberKnife could certainly be used,” says Dr. Mark Pomper, board-certified radiation oncologist and medical Director of CyberKnife Miami.


CyberKnife Miami and HPV Throat Cancers

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with throat cancer, call the experts at CyberKnife Miami for a consultation. They can help you determine the best treatment option for your particular type of cancer.

Our goal is to get you treated effectively, safely, and quickly so you can back to your normal life – cancer free. If you would like to find out more about treatment with CyberKnife, call us at 305-279-2900 or go to our website now for more information www.cyberknifemiami.com.