Over 10,000 Americans are estimated to be diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus-associated oral cancer this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing a concerning trend that has seen the rate of such cancers triple over the last two decades.

Responsible for approximately 70 percent of new cases of oral cancer, HPV-associated oral cancer is now the leading cause of oral cancer, surpassing cigarette smokers and chronic alcohol abusers, with white males between the ages of 40 and 60 years being most affected by this disease. Most notably, accomplished actor Michael Douglas candidly announced his battle with HPV-associated oral cancer five years ago, demonstrating that this is a disease that does not discriminate against anyone.

In an effort to combat the rise of HPV-associated oral cancers, Atlantic Health System Cancer Care officially launched the region’s only center dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of HPV-related head and neck cancers in a grand opening on Wednesday evening at the Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center during Oral Cancer Awareness Month. The event was headlined by the Atlantic Health System’s team of head and neck oncology expert physicians, who offered insights on advancements in surgical approaches, innovations in radiation oncology and clinical trials.

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“For the first time, patients and those who suspect they may have this type of cancer will have somewhere to go to receive care from some of the nation’s most expert, highly specialized physicians and head and neck cancer care teams located at Morristown Medical Center,” said James Wong, MD, medical director, Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute and chair, Department of Radiation Oncology at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center. 

Approximately 14 million people are newly affected with the HPV every year. In fact, HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their life, with as many as 90 percent in men and 80 percent in women, respectively, according to the CDC. Most people will clear the virus naturally within one to two years, and many with the virus won’t know that they’ve been infected. However, when the virus persists and is not cleared from the immune system, it can cause complications, especially if they are of the high-risk variety.

“It’s become increasingly important to have special expertise in HPV-associated head and neck cancers,” explained Erik Cohen, MD, medical director, Head and Neck Surgical Oncology, Atlantic Center for Head and Neck Surgery and surgical director, Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center.

“There are a lot of nuances and complexities in head and neck cancers. When you have a team of dedicated physicians who specialize in head and neck cancer, it’s a great place to receive top level care and to advance the field.”

Because HPV infections are so common, and many times they are asymptomatic, it is hard to determine if you are at risk in the future, Cohen said.  

“I really think our program is unparalleled in the state, and comparable to the international head and neck cancer institutes,” said Missak Haigentz, MD, medical director, Hematology and Oncology at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center. “We need to stay ahead of the curve. It’s a public health crisis. We need to bring heightened awareness of HPV-associated head and neck cancer and the time is now to do that.”

Historically, oral cancers are something that are almost always associated with cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption. Over the years, smoking has decreased and the rates of many cancers have as well, but the numbers of oral cancers have not.

The good news is the HPV-related oral cancers respond better to treatment than those caused by other variables, so long as they are diagnosed early. The cure rates are considerably higher in HPV cases than in cases of oral cancers caused by alcohol use and cigarette smoking.

“Nobody in this country can give patients with head and neck cancer any better care than we are providing,” said Tom Thomas, MD, MPH, director, Head and Neck Reconstructive Surgery and Transoral Robotic Surgery, Leonard B. Kahn Head and Neck Cancer Institute at Morristown Medical Center’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center.

“We’re trying to attack this from top to bottom from prevention to screening and treatment. Our hope and expectations are to attract patients from across the country as we continue to provide the highest level of care.”

Atlantic Health System will host two free oral, head and neck cancer screenings will be held in April, in recognition of Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Month.

“Most of these cancers can be cured with minimally invasive surgical techniques and other treatments with few side effects, if detected early,” said Thomas, who will conduct the free screenings this month. “I strongly encourage anyone with risk factors or potential symptoms to get screened.”

Morristown Medical Center will also host a one-day symposium, "Head and Neck Cancer Treatment in the Era of HPV," on Saturday, April 28 from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Malcolm Forbes Auditorium, 100 Madison Ave. 

To register, call 1-800-247-9580 or visit atlantichealth.org/events.