Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that affects both men and women. While it is more likely to be transmitted through skin-to-skin genital contact, having nonpenetrative sex can still infect someone. Therefore, any sexually active person, even if they only engage in oral sex, could be infected by HPV.
How Common is HPV?
The problem is that most people with HPV don’t present any symptoms or signs of infection. The virus can lay dormant for years, including high-risk strains. For some, the immune system is strong enough to fight the virus and eliminate it from the body on its own. This means that a seemingly healthy person infected with the virus can be a carrier and infect others through unprotected sexual contact.
How does HPV Factor into a Cancer Diagnosis?
There are about 100 types of HPV, 30 strains of which affect the genitals, rectum and anus. Fourteen of those HPV strains are considered high-risk infections that lead to cervical cancer. According to the World Health Organization, 70 percent of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions are caused by two specific HPV types, and 91 percent of anal cancers are believed to be linked to HPV.
Because HPV infections affect the genitals, the virus can also be associated with other cancers of the vagina, vulva and penis. However, HPV-related cancers are not limited to the genitals, and we’re seeing a rise in head and neck cancers.
For a long time, oropharyngeal cancer was mainly linked to smoking because it relates to the mouth and throat. However, doctors began seeing a surge in throat and tongue cancers related to HPV, presumably by the introduction of the virus into the body through oral sex. And some of the revealing signs are lesions in the back of the throat and swollen tonsils.
The Spike in HPV-Related Cancers in Gen X Explained
Because of the virus’s ability to stay dormant for many years, it’s important for people who engaged in unprotected sex with multiple partners during their younger years to realize that they’ve been carrying the virus all this time. This explains why we saw a spike in HPV-related cancer cases in Gen X, the generation who are now aged between 41-56. And many cases of oropharyngeal cancer in Gen X patients weren’t diagnosed until decades after they first contracted HPV.
We see more Gen X with HPV-related cancers because the first FDA-approved HPV vaccination was only introduced in 2006. At this time, the Gen X population would have been in their mid-20s and early 30s. And at that age, most people are feeling their healthiest and not yet thinking of cancer risks.
Therefore, if you are Gen X, have a history of unprotected sex or have not been vaccinated for HPV, it would be wise to get screened.
Contact Tampa Bay Radiation Oncology today for screening and treatment options if you are at high risk of HPV-related cancer. More than a thousand men and women diagnosed with cancer each year turn to our trusted team of cancer specialists. We encourage you to call us, ask us a question, or consult with us to get a second opinion so you, too, can experience the difference.