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Current Trends in HPV-Related Throat Cancer

Read Time: 3 minutes

Back view of group of young adults walking together

For years, the typical patient with throat cancer fit a "Marlboro Man" stereotype—a rugged, outdoorsy man who was a lifelong smoker with a history of alcohol use. But that is no longer true. Today, patients are younger and many don’t use tobacco or alcohol—common risk factors. Instead, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is now responsible for 70-90% of cases of throat cancer, with the highest rates reported in men.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. The virus is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but certain sub-types of HPV can lead to cancer. While HPV has commonly been associated with cervical cancer in women, head and neck cancers are now the most common HPV-related malignancy in the United States.

About 20,000 new cases of HPV-related throat cancer will be diagnosed each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Survival rates are high if the cancer is found early. However, there are two challenges facing the HPV vaccine—screening and treatment.


First, it is difficult to know who is at risk of developing HPV-related throat cancer. Often, a significant amount of time passes from when a person is infected with HPV to when they develop cancer. That makes it hard to know who to screen for the disease.

Unlike the integration of pap smears for cervical cancer prevention, there isn’t a good screening tool for throat cancer. Scientists are searching for better ways to screen patients and identify who is at risk. If we can find the disease earlier, treatment will be less aggressive, and patients will have fewer lifelong side effects.

While screening measures are still under investigation, there are emerging biomarkers that detect levels of HPV DNA in the blood stream. These biomarkers could lead to an earlier diagnosis, improved understanding of treatments, and earlier detection of recurrences. Ultimately, the technology continues to develop and has great potential to positively impact patient care.


When considering treatments for throat cancer, there are both surgical and non-surgical treatments available. In the past, patients with throat cancer required large, invasive surgeries. However, as technology and chemotherapy improve, we have been able to offer a less invasive approach. We now are able to offer patients surgery using advanced robotic technology, which is best for patients with small tumors and minimal disease within the lymph nodes.

We now proudly offer patients surgery at Huntsman Cancer Institute using the Single-Port Da Vinci robot, which is the national standard of care. Ultimately treatment decisions are based on each individual patient, and their unique medical history and severity of disease. 

Raising Awareness

The HPV vaccine makes it possible to prevent HPV-related cancers. The vaccine is available for both males and females, including adolescents and adults up to 45 years old. However, HPV vaccination rates lag behind other adolescent vaccines. Raising awareness is crucial. Primary care physicians and pediatricians are vital partners in the effort to increase the number of young people who get the vaccine.

Huntsman Cancer Institute is at the forefront of preventing and treating HPV-related throat cancer. Over the past decade, we have provided free screenings for thousands of people. To improve HPV vaccination rates in the Mountain West, our community outreach staff and researchers partner with state immunization programs and primary care providers. And when HPV-related cancer can’t be prevented, our physicians provide the best treatment for each patient.

Cancer touches all of us.