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Mouth and Throat Cancers Caused by Virus is Less Deadly, Study Reports

Update Date: Feb 20, 2014 10:07 AM EST
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Even though cancers are curable, there is always a risk of them returning. For people with late-stage mouth or throat cancers, a new study reported that when these cancers return after chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the cause of the cancer could greatly affect the patients' life expectancy. A scientist from Johns Hopkins reported that when mouth and throat cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the patients are twice as likely to still be living two years later when their cancers recur in comparison to patients whose cancers were not caused by HPV.

For this study, the research team analyzed data collected by the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group. The data involved 181 patients who had late-stage oropharyngeal cancer with 105 of them being HPV-positive. The patients' cancer had spread after primary treatment. The researchers found that the median time of cancer recurrence was 8.2 months for the HPV-positive group and 7.3 months for the HPV-negative group.

When the researchers looked at life expectancy after recurrence, they found that 54.6 percent of the patients with HPV were still living two years later. For the HPV-negative group, that percentage fell to 27.6 percent. Furthermore, the researchers found that when patients underwent surgery after recurrence, they were 52 percent less likely to die regardless of HPV status.

"Historically, if you had a recurrence, you might as well get your affairs in order, because survival rates were so dismal. It was hard to say, yes, you should go through surgery," said study leader Carole Fakhry, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "But this study shows us that surgery may have a significant survival benefit, particularly in HPV-positive patients. Until this study, we thought that once these cancers came back, patients did equally poorly regardless of whether their disease was linked to HPV. Now we know that once they recur, HPV status still matters. They still do better."

The study was presented at the 2014 Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium in Scottsdale, AZ.

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