When an act of love causes cancer decades later

Image: Jason Mendelsohn

Jason Mendelsohn of Orlando was diagnosed with HPV-related oral cancer. He’d been married for 21 years and had three kids and may have been infected with the virus when he was in college. Studio T Photography

“The predicted probability of high-risk oral HPV infection was greatest among black participants, those who smoked more than 20 cigarettes daily, current marijuana users, and those who reported 16 or more lifetime vaginal or oral sex partners,” the researchers wrote.

Most people get over these infections and never even know they had them. HPV doesn’t cause any symptoms at first. But in some people, it stays in the infected tissues and causes DNA damage that, years later, causes a tumor to grow.

Rising rates of oral cancer

HPV is the single biggest cause of cervical cancer and certain types of head and neck cancers called oropharyngeal cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2008 and 2012, close to 39,000 people were diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV every year in the U.S., 59 percent of them women and 41 percent men, the University of Florida team reported.

But while the Pap smear and, more lately, HPV tests have reduced rates of cervical cancer, rates of oral cancer are growing.

“There are now more of these HPV-related throat cancers in men than there are cervical cancers in women,” said Dr. Erich Sturgis, professor of head and neck surgery at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.

Frighteningly, the cancers don’t cause any symptoms until they have spread. There is no way to screen people for them — unlike a Pap smear for cervical cancer, there’s not a good test for oral HPV. The only way to prevent infection is the HPV vaccine but once someone’s already infected — and that’s most people over age 26 — the vaccine doesn’t help.

That leaves several generations of Americans vulnerable to these head and neck cancers with no way of knowing if one is silently growing.


Spike in Cancer Linked to Oral Sex

Mendelsohn was one of them.

“I had zero symptoms, except I found a bump on my neck,” Mendelsohn said.

“And the ironic thing is that I literally shave probably every day and never saw or felt the bump before.”

It was stage 4 oropharyngeal cancer.

Treatment for head and neck cancer can be grueling and Mendelsohn said his was no exception.

“It was brutal. I had a radical tonsillectomy,” Mendelsohn,

who is recovered now, said.

“I had 42 lymph nodes removed from my neck, followed by seven weeks of chemo, radiation and a feeding tube.”

The radiation treatment was the worst.

“You have your head strapped down to a table and you can’t move and you can’t swallow your own saliva, so it’s like being waterboarded,” Mendelsohn said.

“It’s horrible,” agreed Sturgis.

“That’s ever more reason why we want to get kids vaccinated so they don’t develop these.”


HPV Raises Head and Neck Cancer Risk 7-Fold


an advocate for men with head and neck cancer, Mendelsohn notes that he was not promiscuous and did not engage in what most people would see as risky sexual behavior.

“I’d been married 21 years. I’ve got three kids. They believe I got the virus in college when I was 18 or 19 and it showed up decades later,” he said.

“This is not people who were promiscuous or who cheated on their spouses. This is normal — like you grow up, you date in college — just normal, everyday dating and having girlfriends,” he added.

“Most people will tell you it’s just oral sex with a woman who has HPV.”

It’s likely spread by all types of oral sex, said Sturgis, who was not involved in the research.

While 11 percent of men had oral HPV in the study published this week, Sturgis notes that’s only over a three year period. Over decades, that adds up to millions more.

“You can imagine over time quite a bit of the population will be exposed to oral HPV. Eighty percent of the population will have a genital HPV infection at some point in their life,” he said.

Image: Jason Mendelsohn

Powered by WPeMatico