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The key to prevention is education, and that means asking questions about things we might rather not think about. What do you know about the correlation between the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. and cancer?

You might wonder what I am doing writing about oral, head, and neck cancer when I have cervical cancer. I think that it is important to break the stigma around HPV. The first step to breaking the stigma is education, this is important information that and you shouldn’t miss it! When I found the organization Cervivor, an advocacy and support organization for cervical cancer survivors, I started to learn more about HPV. Through continued research found that HPV isn’t only linked directly to cervical cancer but also other cancers as well, including oropharyngeal cancer.

An article by the American Council on Science and Health indicated that although tobacco use and alcohol continue to be peddled as the only major risk factors for head, neck, and throat cancers it turns out they are not the primary cause! The Oral Cancer Foundation indicates that HPV has been found to be the fastest growing segment of oral cancer patients and it has nothing to do with tobacco use! These are young, healthy, nonsmoking individuals developing HPV related oropharyngeal cancer.

So, let’s take the time to learn about HPV.

What is HPV?

Human papillomavirus is the medical term, HPV is the common abbreviation. HPV is identified by the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. The Cleveland Clinic reports that over 80% of the sexually active population will contract HPV at some point.

An STI? What do you mean I have an STI?

One common misconception about HPV is that you have to have intercourse to contract it; however, HPV can be easily transmitted through skin-to-skin intimate contact. Bodily fluids don’t have to be exchanged! This is one thing that makes HPV unique. So, even if you are being safe, there is a possibility of exposure.

How does oral HPV vary from genital HPV?

The same types of HPV which infect the genital areas can infect the throat and mouth. Studies have shown that this is true about some individuals carrying HPV 16, which is also known to cause oropharyngeal cancers.

How often are oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV?

Cancers in the back of the throat, most commonly the tongue and tonsils, can be caused by high risk HPV (strand 16). The CDC reports that more than 10,000 new cases of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed annually in the United States alone.

Is oropharyngeal cancer more common in men or women?

Men are four times more likely to contract this type of cancer than women.

HPV can sound scary, but the high risk strand which is linked to some cases of oropharyngeal cancer can actually be prevented. There are multiple prevention techniques such as the use of condoms and dental dams during oral sex. Another key preventative measure is the HPV vaccine, which is known to protect against multiple strands of HPV including HPV 16, the strand linked to oropharyngeal cancer!

The CDC recommends that we begin vaccinating children against the high risk strands of HPV starting at age 11. Through the use of the HPV vaccine we can protect our children against the high risk strand which is a known cause of oropharyngeal cancer, which also protects against high risk strands known to cause virtually all cases of cervical cancer (strands 16 and 18), genital and oral warts (strands 6 and 11), and penile, anal, and vulvar cancers.

There is a general lack of education of the public about how effective and important this vaccine really is. This is unacceptable!

We have a vaccine available today which can prevent many individuals from developing deadly cancers. Let that sink in. We have a vaccine which can help prevent multiple types of cancer and it is being completely underutilized in the United States. Prevention is key, education is the first step to prevention.

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