The Rise of a Cancer

FRESNO, Calif.

Paul Wyett has been through a rough couple months.

"I was fine. Healthy. Then, all of a sudden, I was in a surgery room for the first time in my life," Wyett told Ivanhoe. Last August, he was diagnosed with oropharynx cancer. It's a type of throat cancer experts say may double in 10 years.

"You can actually grow quite a large tumor, even the size of a golf ball or bigger, in the back of your tongue or in your tonsil and not know it," Ron Karni, M.D., from UT Health/Memorial Hermann in Houston, told Ivanhoe.

Now, it's popping up in patients without warning.

"We see them in people who don't have any risk factors in regards to smoking or alcohol," Dr. Karni said.

Experts are now blaming part of the cancer's rise on the human papillomavirus (HPV).

"We're certainly seeing the evidence of some of the changes that that virus causes to the cell in patients who have HPV-related cancers," Dr. Karni said.

As a result, experts hope the Gardasil vaccine, which protects younger people against HPV may prevent oropharynx cancer, too. In 2009, about 70 percent of oropharynx cancers were HPV-positive. In 2003, it was just 35 percent.

"We'll probably have to wait a whole generation before we can look back and say that we've seen a marked reduction in head and neck tumors because of the vaccines we're giving today," Dr. Karni said.

Wyett had robotic surgery, chemo and radiation for his tumor.

"This was just a little speed bump in the road that you just deal with, and you go on," Wyett said.

One of the HPV types that Gardasil protects against is found in up to 90 percent of HPV-positive oropharynx cancers. The HPV vaccine is currently approved for men and women between ages 9 through 26 years old.

Ron J. Karni, M.D.
UT-Houston/Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center
(713) 965-3097

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