Getting men to see the doctor is important for early detection of HPV throat cancer
By Pamela Tom | HPVANDME Founder
Are you one of those guys who hates going to the doctor? Are you one of those people who is continually trying to get your partner to seek medical attention for a possible issue—without success?
The thing about HPV-related throat cancer: a positive prognosis greatly depends on early detection. If you don’t go see the doc, you’re rolling the dice.
It seems to be the American way. A 2022 Cleveland Clinic survey of 1000 U.S. men found that “55 percent said they don’t get regular health screenings. Men of color were even less likely to see a doctor regularly—a full 63 percent dodged routine visits.”
I Don’t Need A Doctor
According to a New York Times article on this topic, male avoidance of visiting the doctor may be blamed on psychological misconceptions. Some men want to avoid possible bad news. Others may wrongly believe they are healthier than other men. One doctor observed that while physicians advise young women to get annual OB-GYN exams, their male counterparts are not conditioned early on to get regular medical exams.
HPV in Males
When it comes to HPV, this hesitation becomes more complicated. Most people associate HPV as a women’s problem because HPV causes cervical cancer. However, a recent study on HPV prevalence in males found that over one-third of men aged 15 years and over are infected with at least one type of HPV. One in five men is infected with one or more types of HPV that are considered “high-risk” strains.” The numbers were scraped from 65 studies across 35 countries.
HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that can infect the throat (base of tongue, tonsils) through oral sex or other forms of intimate contact. It is important to note that not all HPV strains lead to cancer. The strains most commonly associated with throat cancer are HPV-16 and HPV-18.
Age Also Matters
In the U.S., the CDC began recommending HPV vaccination for boys in 2009, three years after it approved the HPV vaccine for girls. The three year lag means that boys born before 1998, (or who are now in the 25-late 30’s age range) may not have been vaccinated. Those in this cohort may want to ask their doctors if they may still benefit from HPV vaccination. In 2019, the CDC expanded the approved HPV vaccination age range to 27 to 45.
A recent study focused specifically on “working age” men, 18-30 years old, and found this group to be under-vaccinated.
People born between the late to mid 1960’s through the late 70’s and early 80’s comprise the group known as “Generation X.” Today their ages range from early 40’s to late 50’s. They also missed the boat for HPV vaccination. HPV-related throat cancer patients are typically now in their 50’s and 60’s, according to Dr. Neil Gross, Director of Clinical Research in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Which brings us back to the importance of seeing the doctor.
What Do Men Care About?
The Cleveland Clinic survey also found that men do care about their sexual health. That’s 32% of men surveyed or just slightly less than the 38% of men who have concerns about cancer. Perhaps doctors who discuss sexual health with their patients may also discuss the early symptoms of HPV cancer with patients—just in case.
HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer (which specifically affects the throat, tonsils, and the base of the tongue) is now the #1 HPV cancer in the US, surpassing incidents of cervical cancer. It affects both sexes, but mostly men. While women have benefited from HPV vaccines that protect against cervical cancer, there hasn’t been a similar focus on vaccinating men, leaving them more vulnerable to HPV-related cancers, including throat cancer.
Vaccinate Boys Too
New 2023 data shows that for the first time in a decade, HPV vaccination rates have not increased. The COVID pandemic didn’t help. Notably, the research says immunization rates stalled most significantly among children with Medicaid coverage. Vaccination rates also vary greatly state to state. The CDC recommends vaccination at age 11-13 or as early as 9 years-old because it is more effective before a person is exposed to HPV.
Confused? Still unsure? Take a look at the CDC’s vaccination guide. And share it.
Don’t Give Up
My husband may not have received his HPV throat cancer diagnosis in good time had I not insisted that he see an ENT doctor. In our case, my husband did not refuse to go to the doctor. Instead, his primary doctor failed to recognize the lump in his throat could be cancer; as a result, I pressed for a specialist. Regardless, it took a pro-active approach to be properly diagnosed and treated.
Dr. Gail Saltz, a noted psychiatrist, says getting men to see the doctor is about making the doctor’s visit easy. Loved ones may schedule the appointment and prepare questions for the doctor. If that doesn’t work, Dr. Saltz recommends that the partner, supporter, or family explain that such insistence means they love him and simply want him to be healthy.
Early detection of throat cancer is crucial for successful treatment. Men who are at a higher risk should discuss their risk factors with their healthcare provider and consider regular screenings.