How Does Cancer Occur in The Mouth and Throat? | Dr. Panella Explains

How Does Cancer Occur in The Mouth and Throat?

As the most experienced team of ear, nose & throat doctors in East Tennessee, my team and I have helped many local people with concerns with head, neck, and throat disorders.

One of the most common areas of diagnosis we discover is cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

The HPV virus is highly prevalent, and we didn’t know this until new and sophisticated ways to test for viral DNA were introduced. We know that around 90 to 95 percent of the United States population will have had or been exposed to HPV through this advanced testing.

Does a Positive HPV Test Mean I Have Cancer?

In short – no.

Although the HPV virus is associated with cancer, it doesn’t always result in this.

When HPV gets into the cells, it doesn’t cause a lot of trouble most of the time. But, the frustrating thing is that sometimes it goes into those cells and creates a minor issue that causes the cells to divide.

As a result, the divided cells can show as a wart, and sometimes it can show itself as cancer – this behavior is very unpredictable.

So, we still must be vigilant when we know that this virus is around.

Many people are exposed to HPV, so the important thing is awareness of this and being cautious about what it might mean in the future.

Female reproductive tract cancers and oral cavities can get the HPV virus – so both men and women are exposed to cancers in these areas, such as the throat.

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How Is Cancer Caused by HPV Diagnosed?

HPV-related cancers are interesting because they are almost always either in the tonsils or the very back part of the tongue – what we call the base of the tongue. You can’t see this part of the tongue when you look in the mirror.

Most commonly, patients have a small lump where the cancer cells start to grow. We usually find these cancers once they’ve already spread to the lymph nodes of the neck – we call that cervical metastasis, which means that the cancer cells have gotten into the lymphatic system, done their job, filtered them out, and caught them there in the neck.

So, most people already have some cancer cells in the lymph nodes at the neck when diagnosing them.

Treatment Options for Mouth and Throat Cancer

Depending on what we see with the patient, treatment options will vary.

With advanced tools, we can now reach the back of the throat to get to the back of the tongue and perform surgery. In addition, these tumors caused by the HPV virus are usually less aggressive than those caused by smoking.

These types of cancers caused by the HPV virus also tend to be very survivable – so our main priorities are treating patients in a way that’s the least harmful and least likely to disrupt their speech for the rest of their life.

Our goal is always to balance treating the tumor to make it go away and ensuring our patients live long, healthy lives. To do this, we approach treatment options by carefully considering how to remove the tumor with a minor invasion or disruption.

With lymph node surgery, we’re seeing a lot more continued success removing tumors through surgery alone – meaning our experts can ensure the patient is treated in the most effective way possible for their prolonged health.

Concerned about Mouth and Throat Cancer?

Ear, Nose, and Throat Consultants of East Tennessee has been the most respected and experienced team of doctors since 1976 and has helped thousands of people address their concerns.

With three convenient locations across East Tennessee, you’re never too far from one of our experts.

If you or a loved one has concerns about mouth or throat cancer, we’re here to support you with your ENT health and guide you toward a healthy and happy life.

To find out more or schedule a consultation, please follow this link.

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Nicholas J. Panella, M.D.

Growing up in Knoxville, Nicholas went to Webb High School. While no day is the same, as he is constantly managing different projects as a general ENT, his practice specializes in head and neck cancer. The job can be difficult; however, he loves to work alongside a wonderful group of doctors and providers who all want to work together to help ensure patients have the best possible outcome. Everyone is so supportive of each other and loves to bring new techniques and surgical options to the East TN area. Outside of work, he dedicates his time to his wife and two young kids. They enjoy spending time on the lake, fishing, mountain biking, and snowboarding. He is also involved with his local church and the Emerald Youth Foundation

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