What are the signs and symptoms to watch out for?
Oropharyngeal cancer is relatively slow-growing and can take a long time for any symptoms to become noticeable. One of the major signs is a lump in the neck, a bit like a swollen gland, which indicates that it has spread to a lymph node.
“You should see a GP if you develop any new or concerning symptoms such as a lump in the neck or a hoarse voice,” says Prof Stuart Winter, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at GenesisCare, the private cancer care provider.
Do we need better screening?
Dr Bhide predicts rates of oropharyngeal cancer are likely to decrease over time following the decision to make the HPV vaccine available for free on the NHS to all 12-13 year-olds in 2019.
“A person has to be vaccinated prior to being sexually active or getting infected with the virus,” says Bhide. “The latent period between getting infected with the virus and developing cancer is between 10 and 40 years, so it will be a while before we see the benefits of the immunisation strategy.”
Dr Bhide is not convinced about the benefits of screening for the presence of the HPV virus in mouth and throat cavities in the general male population as less than one per cent of those infected with the virus will go on to develop cancer.
However, Dr Marsh believes there is an urgent need for better diagnostic tests at dedicated screening centres or even dental surgeries to identify the disease at a much earlier stage. This is because the signs of oropharyngeal cancer tend to emerge relatively late when the disease is at a more advanced stage.
No such tests are clinically available but earlier this year, researchers at the University of Surrey published a proposed test, called Pandora (point-of-care analysis for non-invasive diagnosis of oral cancer), which could be used to measure samples collected during routine dental appointments. The study showed the test is more than 92 per cent accurate at identifying patients with oropharyngeal cancer, and more than 80 per cent accurate at identifying signs of damage to cells in the throat which could develop into cancer.
What can you do if you’re concerned?
Any men who turned 13 before 2019, will not have received the HPV vaccine and could in theory be at risk of developing HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer at some point in life.