Oral sex and throat cancer link increasingly apparent, UZ Leuven claims

Oral sex and throat cancer link increasingly apparent, UZ Leuven claims
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Smoking and alcohol have been known as the main risk factors for developing throat cancer, but research in recent years has also established a clear connection with oral sex.

According to the Cancer Registry Foundation in Brussels, 2,766 new diagnoses of head and neck cancer were made in 2019, corresponding to 24.2 new diagnoses per 100,000 persons per year. A large majority of 2,058 diagnoses were made in men. In women, there were 708 new diagnoses.

Dr Pierre Delaere, Professor at UZ Leuven, explains in De Morgen what the connection is, which symptoms to look out for, and what to expect after a diagnosis.

Links to oral sex

Smoking remains the greatest risk factor for developing throat cancer, as the chemicals released during smoking are carcinogenic. The combination of smoking and excessive alcohol increases the risk of throat cancer further, Delaere explains. “Tobacco and alcohol use reinforce each other, precisely because there are more carcinogenic substances.”

But new insights in recent years have shown that there is another cause of throat cancer: it can be found due to transmission of the HPV virus, especially relating to oral sex and various sex partners. “The number of throat cancers caused by the HPV virus has been increasing in recent years,” he said.

Cancer behind the oral cavity can be caused by an infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted from person to person and occurs in both men and women.

“Throat cancer involves transmission through oral sex. In the vast majority of cases, the immune system removes the virus from the body, but sometimes it doesn’t and the virus settles in the cells of the oral cavity, where you can get a chronic infection,” Delaere explains. “As a result, the cells can undergo a mutation, which can lead to throat cancer.”

“By the way, there are many more men than women who get throat cancer, the ratio can be estimated at about 70/30.” The reason is that men smoke and drink more, though women are starting to catch up in recent years.

What are the early symptoms?

Throat cancer is a toxic disorder of the mucous membrane in the pharynx. “If cells in that mucous membrane start to divide uncontrollably, a malignant tumour can develop,” says ENT specialist, Dr Delaere. In other words, throat cancer.

Throat cancer can develop in various areas in and around the throat, for instance in the space behind the nasal cavity, the oral cavity, in the tonsils or at the base of the tongue.

Symptoms are often vague at first, meaning the disease is usually discovered at an advanced stage. However, there are a number of clear signs: “A persistent sore throat is one of them,” says Professor Delaere.

“Furthermore, a sore in the throat that doesn’t seem to go away can be a symptom. Or coughing up blood, hoarseness and discomfort when swallowing. In an advanced stage, swollen neck glands indicate a tumour.”

Treatment options

Fortunately, there are several types of treatment, depending on the cause of the tumour. “In case of throat cancer due to HPV, radiation treatment is usually sufficient, possibly combined with chemotherapy.” The same goes for throat cancer as a result of smoking and alcohol behaviour.

“But after metastases in the neck glands, in many cases, an operation can follow in which the tumour is excised. That removal is already being done with robots. If surgery is necessary, we sometimes have to remove part of the throat, which has serious consequences for the patient, because afterwards, it is difficult to speak and swallow.” Some patients even have to learn how to speak again.

However, if the cancer is detected in the early stages, the chance of a cure is 90%. Subsequent treatments account for 50 to 60% of diagnosed cases.

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