It used to be that head and neck cancers were an older man’s illness, spurred on by decades of smoking and drinking, but that’s not true anymore.
“We’re seeing many more young and middle-aged men -- and some women-- with these cancers,” said Dr. Rex Hoffman, a radiation oncologist practicing at the Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank, California, and affiliated with Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Since the late 1980s, when the United States heightened its public awareness for smoking cessation, the number of new cancers in the larynx (voice box), hypopharynx (sometimes called the gullet) and oral cavity (lips, front of tongue, cheek, upper and lower gum lines) lessened, Hoffman said.
But as those cancers decreased, the incidence of new cancers in the oropharynx (the back or base of tongue and tonsils) rose sharply.
The head and neck cancers most frequently seen now appear to be sexually transmitted, linked to the human papillomavirus, especially HPV-16, rather than smoking and drinking. Recent National Cancer Institute studies show that these cancers are more common than once believed.
HPV-16 is the same strain of the virus that causes cervical cancer in women. However, HPV-related head and neck cancer is nearly twice as common among men as in women, according to the American Cancer Society’s 2012 Cancer Facts & Figures.
“The incidence of these HPV-related oropharynx cancers now outnumber the incidence of head and neck cancer that is not HPV related,” Hoffman said. “In general, patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer are approximately 10 years younger than those with HPV-negative cancer.”
In fact, these cancers are being diagnosed as young as age 30 in nonsmokers and nondrinkers.Read more in Roy & Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center