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The role of HPV in head and neck cancer: It’s time to talk.

By Rachael Dodd, on 5 November 2014

Most well-known for its link with cervical cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to a number of other cancers including some cancers of the head and neck.  The number of HPV-related head and neck cancers diagnosed in the UK has doubled in recent years so health professionals in this field are finding themselves having to talk to their patients about HPV.
Health professionals have an ethical obligation to ensure accuracy and transparency when explaining to patients that their cancer has been caused by HPV. But because HPV is sexually transmitted, discussing it could be a potential challenge for health professionals with little experience of discussing sex with their patients. In order to understand the experiences and challenges of talking to head and neck cancer patients about HPV, we interviewed fifteen health professionals (surgeons, oncologists, specialist nurses and allied health professionals) working in the field.
Most of the health professionals we interviewed did talk to their patients about HPV, but there were mixed views about the benefits of this. Some felt it was useful for patients to know the cause of their cancer, particularly because HPV-related head and neck cancer has a better prognosis than the more ‘traditional’ tobacco and alcohol-related cancers. Others felt that as patients’ HPV status would not affect their treatment, such discussions were unnecessary.
Health professionals discussed how HPV-related head and neck cancer patients can have different rehabilitation needs to those with head and neck cancer that’s caused by alcohol and tobacco because they tend to be younger and in better health. For example, one speech and language therapist said: ‘we’ve got a longer period of survivorship for younger people who are still actively employed and so their functional rehabilitation becomes a bigger issue’. The impact that an HPV-related diagnosis could have on relationships was also considered important.
Participants identified some key messages about HPV that they felt were important to include in their discussions with patients. Explaining to patients that HPV is very common and linked with normal sexual behaviour helped to normalise the infection. Drawing parallels with cervical cancer and mentioning the HPV vaccination had also been found to be helpful.
The range of experiences discussed suggests a need for clinical guidance to ensure that patients are receiving consistent messages. In line with a previous study of dentists in the United States, most of the health professionals we interviewed felt that additional training could help them improve their knowledge about HPV and their communication with patients. Further research is needed with patients to explore what being diagnosed with HPV-related head and neck cancer means for them.

Article link:
Dodd R.H; Marlow L. and Waller J. Discussing a diagnosis of human papillomavirus oropharyngeal cancer with patients: a qualitative study of health professionals Head and Neck
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hed.23916/pdf

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