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HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Related Cancers

January 9, 2020
Becky Powell
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Related Cancers

HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Related Cancers

When asked what causes cancer most people will respond with an answer of chemicals, smoking, or too much sun but rarely do people mention viruses. Scientists know that viruses can cause several different types of cancer. A virus is an infective agent too small to be seen by the human eye that reproduces inside a living organism. The Human Papillomavirus or better known as HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that causes almost all of the cervical cancers diagnosed in this country. This virus can also cause cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and oropharynx (head/neck).   The oropharynx is the back of the mouth that includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and tonsils.  There are more than 200 types of the HPV virus but not all of them cause cancer.  Roughly, 14 types are “high risk” and of these HPV16 and HPV18 are responsible for most HPV related cancer.

HPV is very common in sexually active people with most people not knowing they have it.  Generally, the immune system controls HPV infections so cancer does not develop.  However, in situations where the immune system is overwhelmed or unsuccessful in controlling the high- risk type virus, the virus can persist.  When the virus lingers for years it can cause cell changes that over time can develop into cancer.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports there are roughly 44,000 HPV related cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year.  Most of these are cervical cancer and cancer of the oropharynx (head/neck).  Of major concern is the increased number of HPV related oropharynx cancers seen in this country.  The American Cancer Society reports that in the U.S., Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer followed by African-Americans, American Indians and Alaskan Native, and Whites.  Asian and Pacific Islanders have the lowest risk of cervical cancer in this country.

Can you prevent HPV infections?  The CDC recommends vaccination to prevent HPV infections before someone is exposed to the virus. There is a vaccine available for girls and boys ages 11 or 12 which requires two doses.  Children that receive their first dose at age 15 or older will need 3 doses.  For those not vaccinated, the vaccine can be given up to age 26. Adults between 27 and 45 who did not receive all vaccine doses can get it, but it is less effective because they are more likely to have already been exposed to the virus. 

Besides HPV vaccinations for children, screening for cervical cancer with the HPV/Pap co-test is recommended for women aged 30-65. This test checks for high-risk HPV virus as well as changes to the cells of the cervix. Currently, there are not any cancer screening tests approved by the Federal Drug Administration to look for cellular changes of the anus, rectum, vulvar, vagina, penis, or oropharynx. Last year, the American Cancer Society launched a campaign called “Mission:  HPV Cancer Free.”  The goal of this campaign is to eliminate vaccine-preventable HPV cancers by getting 80% of young people vaccinated by 2026. To achieve this goal, it is critical for people to educate themselves about the HPV associated cancers and for parents to get their children vaccinated. For detailed information about screening for cervical cancer or the HPV vaccine, refer to the American Cancer Society website at www.cancer.org or contact the Community Cancer Center at 309-451-8500.   

Becky Powell MS, RN, AOCN    
Community Cancer Center

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