Head & Neck

HPV and Cancer

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a virus that can lead to cancer and, particularly, oropharyngeal (throat) and cervical cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Most people acquire an HPV infection at some point in their lifetime, and the majority are able to heal from it, often without symptoms. If the infection does not resolve, however, it may lead to the development of cancer.

If your doctor suspects throat cancer, you will likely be tested for the HPV biomarker. Its presence helps your doctor appropriately stage the cancer and determine the treatment that may be most effective for you (see Throat Cancer). HPV biomarker testing may also be conducted to predict an HPV-associated throat cancer recurrence.

What this means for your family

Because HPV is spread through sexual contact, it is important to learn how this diagnosis may affect your loved ones.

First, it is important to realize that most people diagnosed with a head and neck cancer are over the age of 45 and never had the opportunity to receive the vaccine because it was not yet available. They also are no longer eligible for it. Additionally, the HPV vaccine does not treat existing infections or diseases. As a result, the goal should be prevention. Advocate for vaccinating younger family members to try to prevent future infections from the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers.

Three vaccines are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for male and female children and young adults, 9 to 26 years old, to provide protection against new HPV infections and include:

  • Gardasil (Human Papillomavirus Quadrivalent [Types 6, 11, 16, and 18] Vaccine, Recombinant).
  • Gardasil 9 (Human Papillomavirus 9-valent Vaccine, Recombinant). Gardasil 9’s approval was recently expanded to include males and females ages 27 through 45 years.
  • Cervarix (Human Papillomavirus Bivalent [Types 16 and 18] Vaccine, Recombinant).

Using condoms and dental dams properly may lower the chance that HPV is passed from one person to another. Consult your health care team for more resources about HPV.

Key facts about HPV:

  • More than 150 types of HPV exist and about 40 types can be spread through sexual contact from the skin and mucous membranes (lining of the mouth, throat or genital tract).
  • HPV-related throat cancers are increasing fastest among men in the United States.
  • Oropharyngeal (throat) cancers affect the middle part of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils, and are the most common type of cancer caused by HPV.
  • Nine strains of HPV are known to cause cancer, with HPV being linked to approximately 70 percent of throat cancers.
  • HPV is also linked to anal, cervical, penile, vaginal and vulvar cancers.