Reviewing what we know: the psychological impact of HPV and oral cancer
By Rachael Dodd, on 21 March 2016
Human papillomavirus, or HPV as it’s more commonly known, is an infection that most sexually active people will get in their lifetime. We know that the high-risk types of HPV (e.g. HPV-16 and HPV-18) are often sexually transmitted and in some cases, albeit very few, it can lead to cancer if our bodies don’t get rid of it. It’s probably most well known as the cause of cervical cancer, as the HPV vaccination was introduced in 2008 and is available to all girls aged 12-13. But it has also been shown to cause other cancers, such as oral cancer, penile cancer and anal cancer.
When HPV was increasingly found to be the cause of cervical cancer, researchers looked into the psychological impact this could have on women being given this information. Research carried out with women taking part in HPV testing at cervical cancer screening has shown that the sexually transmitted nature of HPV can lead to women feeling stigma, anxiety, concern about their relationships and worry about telling others about their test result. Some women also reported a reduction in sexual enjoyment and frequency of sex. Because of the additional challenges faced by women with cervical HPV, people now recognise a need for some guidance on how best to discuss HPV with oral cancer patients.
Patients with HPV-related oral cancer are typically younger than those whose oral cancer has been caused by tobacco or alcohol. They tend to be white, male, married, educated and employed. The risk of getting a HPV-related oral cancer is higher if individuals have had a greater lifetime number of sexual and oral sex partners, due to greater exposure to HPV.
Unsurprisingly, research shows that a diagnosis of head and neck cancer causes psychological distress. Telling patients that they also have HPV could make them worry even more. We wanted to see what studies have been done in this area and what they have found.
We searched all the available literature to look at the psychological impact of being diagnosed with HPV-related oral cancer. In essence, there wasn’t much research out there. Ten research papers had looked at the psychological impact of being diagnosed with an HPV-related oral cancer. Seven of these measured quality of life (a patient’s ability to enjoy normal life activities) and they had varying results. Some research studies found that patients with HPV-related oral cancer had better quality of life than those diagnosed due to tobacco or alcohol, or that there was no difference between the two groups of patients. In one study which interviewed survivors, some patients felt stigma or shame associated with their diagnosis, because of the sexually transmitted nature of HPV.
We also looked at what different groups of people know about HPV and oral cancer, which varied considerably. As you would expect, knowledge was higher among medical professionals than members of the public. Knowledge was also higher among students who were studying medicine or dentistry than students who were not studying these subjects.
So far, there haven’t been many studies looking at the psychosocial impact of a diagnosis of HPV-related oral cancer and many people in the general public do not know about the link between HPV and oral cancer. The research studies looking at the psychological impact of HPV-related oral cancer, looked at this in patients, but this has led to further research being conducted with health professionals, patients and their partners. This research has explored their experiences of diagnosing/being diagnosed with HPV-related oral cancer, as well as the psychological impact of a diagnosis of HPV-related oral cancer.
Dodd RH, Waller J, Marlow LAV. Human Papillomavirus and Head and Neck Cancer: Psychosocial Impact in Patients and Knowledge of the Link – A Systematic Review. Clinical Oncology 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.clon.2016.02.012