It’s the one nobody’s talking about…
There’s an unsightly bulge in my throat that’s worrying me.
My left tonsil or gland, or whatever you want to call it, is swollen and has been for years now. It doesn’t hurt. But I think it’s probably cancer.
Truthfully, I think a lot of things are cancer. Breast pain before my period? Cancer. That big bruise from when I banged into the coffee table? Gotta be cancer. Stomach pain after eating too many cookies? Definitely cancer.
Call me a hypochondriac, but nearly 32,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancers, or cancers of the mouth, tongue and back of the throat, each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s one of the sneakiest types of cancers because there are virtually no symptoms, except hoarseness and throat pain, until it’s in the end-stage, stage four.
More than 70 percent of these cases are caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus, that unpronounceable condition that about 79 million humans. Literally, every adult we know, even our parents and grandparents, have HPV. Eww.
There also are hundreds of HPV strains but, luckily, only a handful that cause this scary throat and mouth cancer. They’re transmitted from one person’s genitals to another person’s mouth during oral sex, doctors say. Of course, you and I have no experience with that kind of thing but, ‘Oh look, it’s Ryan Gosling!’
What was I saying? Oh yes, so these HPV-related cancers can strike anyone who is sexually active, but occur most commonly in Caucasian men and women, according to the CDC.
So, today, I asked my primary doctor, whom I adore, to look at my disgusting, misshapen ‘froat’ blob to see what he could see.
His diagnosis: “Yes, it looks inflamed.”
“Oh my gosh. Do I have cancer? I have cancer, don’t I?” I blubbered.
Luckily, he didn’t slap me across the face like men used to do to hysterical women in old-timey, black-and-white movies such as this one. Er, starring Sarah Silverman and a toddler.
Instead, he said there are a few things I can do.
“What I usually tell my patients if they’re worried about these types of symptoms is to … ”
1. See your dentist
Yes, your teeth are gorgeous. But it turns out dentists are spot on at spotting mouth cancers, according to the American Dental Association and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, which are teaming up to help spread awareness of HPV-linked mouth and throat cancers.
“I’m living proof that dentists can make a big difference,” says Sandy Wexler of Houston.
In 2012, Sandy’s dentist noticed one of her lymph nodes was enlarged. A biopsy soon revealed the lymph node was cancerous, and Sandy immediately made an appointment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where doctors discovered she had stage IV oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV.
“I was shocked,” Sandy says. But after radiation and chemotherapy treatment, she’s alive and well today.
2. Make an appointment with an otolaryngologist
You’ve probably already met one at some point in your life. An otolaryngologist is a fancy name for an ear, nose and throat specialist or ENT. ENTs can do further tests to check for potential cancers.
Nearly all of these exams are completely painless. The specialist might use special dyes, lights and mirrors to look for abnormalities in your throat or mouth, according to the American Cancer Society.
For example, a dye called toluidine blue will stain blue when applied to cancerous tissue, and a special light can illuminate tumorous growths. If you’re nervous, the doctor can spray the back of your throat with numbing medicine to make the exam easier.
In case there’s a need for further testing, biopsies, scrapings or samples of unusual tissue, may be taken and sent to a lab. But, don’t panic, because that doesn’t mean you necessarily have cancer. It just means they want to make absolutely sure you don’t, and, if you do, these infections have a very high cure and survival rate — about 90 per cent, the American Cancer Society says.
3. Stop having sex
Just kidding. Using condoms helps, although the American Cancer Society warns that HPV, and other sexually transmitted infections, can still be contagious on body parts outside the condom.
4. Get vaccinated
Since HPV is suspected of causing oropharyngeal, cervical, anal and vulval cancer in women and penile cancer in men, the best way to prevent it is to get vaccinated, according to the American Cancer Society. HPV strikes most people in their late teens and early 20s when they’re just starting to become sexually active, the CDC says, so it’s ideal to get vaccinated before then.
Vaccinations for HPV are available as early as age nine, but you, or your child, can start them anytime up to age 26. It just takes two shots, six months to 1 year apart.
As for my case, my doctor said he suspects my throat is inflamed from pollen allergies. But I’ll still probably go see an ENT, because, you know, cancer.
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Comment: Have you talked with your partner about HPV or sexually transmitted cancers?