Health & Family

Sexually transmitted virus blamed for rise in throat cancer

For five grueling months in 2006 and 2007, Carol Kanga suffered through treatment for a life-threatening case of throat cancer linked to an unlikely source: a sexually transmitted viral infection.

Unable to swallow during chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Kanga was fed through a stomach tube. Her one respite came on Thanksgiving, when she savored a single spoonful of weak broth.

“The radiation basically burns the skin off the outside and inside of your throat,” said Kanga, 52, a Rockville, Md., artist. “It's like there's a fire inside your neck.”

Kanga's treatment was successful, but the virus that struck her is causing increasing concern among some researchers who think it is causing a small-scale epidemic of throat cancer.

That virus, scientists have proved only in the last two years, is human papillomavirus, or HPV, the virus behind most cases of cervical cancer.

With 6,000 cases per year and an annual increase of up to 10 percent in men younger than 60, some researchers say the HPV-linked throat cancers could overtake cervical cancer in the next decade.

“It's almost a new disease, in a sense,” said Dr. Ezra Cohen, an oncologist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It's now becoming a dominant sub-type of the disease that we see in our clinic.”

The HPV infections likely took root decades ago as Baby Boomers were reaching adulthood, and only now are spurring a rise in throat cancer cases, mostly among men and women in their 50s.

No one understands the precise reason for the increase, though experts suspect it's linked to changes in sexual practices that emerged in the 1960s and '70s. For example, oral sex is a known risk factor for HPV-related throat cancers, and studies have shown that people who have come of age since the 1950s are more likely to have engaged in oral sex than those born earlier.

“Those people were in their teens during the sexual revolution, so they may be leading the wave,” said Dr. Maura Gillison, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center who has published numerous studies indicating that HPV-related throat cancer is a distinct type of disease.

The virus-linked cancer appears somewhat less deadly than throat cancers that arise from smoking or drinking. A paper published this year found that 96 percent of HPV-positive patients survived at least two years after diagnosis, compared with 62 percent survival for HPV-negative cancers.

“They have a better prognosis, but these are still very aggressive cancers,” said Dr. Marshall Posner, medical director of head and neck oncology at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center in Boston.