Throat cancer was once relatively rare, but now the rate is increasing, especially among people age 50 and older, a top expert says.
“When it comes to throat cancer, the key demographic experiencing an increase is the baby boomers,” Dr. Allen Ho tells Newsmax Health.
The rate of throat cancer increased 200 percent during the 10-year period between 2004 and 2014, according to Ho, director of the Head and Neck Program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.
This year, an estimated 48,330 adults (34,780 men and 13,550 women) in the U.S. will be diagnosed with throat cancer, which is known also as oral or oropharyngeal cancer, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
It’s estimated 9,570 deaths (6,910 men and 2,660 women) annually occur from the disease. It occurs twice as often in men, ASCO says.
Throat cancer occurs in the part of the throat just behind the mouth, including the tonsils.
Smoking and alcohol use are also causes of throat cancer, but this was more true in the past than now, says Ho. Nowadays, the human pappilloma virus (HPV) causes most cases – an estimated 70 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“We have seen in recent years a dramatic spike in HPV-related throat cancers in people in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” says Ho.
HPV is a common, sexually caused infection that can affect the skin, cervix, anus, mouth and throat.
Throat cancer is linked to HPV infections that took hold years ago but are now developing into cancer in the tonsils and base of the tongue, says Ho.
“The sexual practices that increase the risk of throat cancer include deep kissing, oral sex and having multiple partners.”
According to ASCO, these are the symptoms of throat cancer:
- Sore in the mouth or on the lip that does not heal
- Red or white patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
- Lump on the lip, mouth, neck, or throat or a feeling of thickening in the cheek
- Persistent sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Hoarseness or change in voice
- Numbness of the mouth or tongue
- Pain or bleeding in the mouth
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue
- Ear and/or jaw pain
“The most common symptoms are a lingering sore throat, ear pain, or a sensation that there is something stuck in the throat – like a chicken bone– but nothing is there,” says Ho.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of people with throat cancer do not experience symptoms, but are diagnosed only after the cancer has spread and they find a mass in their neck or a swollen lymph node," he adds.
Fortunately, HPV-caused throat cancer is easier to cure than the type that comes from tobacco use and drinking, says Ho.
"Throat cancer from smoking and drinking tends to be a lot more resistant to treatment because those type of cancer cells have more ways to elude therapy. HPV-caused throat cancer responds much better to treatment.”
But no matter what caused the cancer, early diagnosis is always best, says Ho.
“In the early stage, surgery can be done to remove the cancer, but later stages can involve radiation and chemotherapy.”
HPV also raises the risk of cervical cancer, but the Pap smear is available to screen for that disease. There is no such screening test for throat cancer, notes Ho.
"While the vast majority of HPV infections do not cause throat cancer, people should be monitored."
There is a vaccine that can provide protection against HPV, but it must be given between the ages of 13 and 26, notes Ho.
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