Human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive cancers occur due to the HPV. These diseases include cervical, throat, anal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers.

HPV-positive cancers stem from infection with HPV, which encompasses a group of related viruses. Medical professionals identify certain HPV strains as high risk because they significantly increase the risk of cervical, oropharyngeal (throat), anal, penile, vulvar, and vaginal cancers.

Symptoms of these cancers can vary, presenting as lumps, sores, persistent pain, or changes in bodily functions, depending on the cancer type. Treatment may involve a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy. Implementing early detection strategies, such as screening and HPV vaccination, can significantly improve treatment effectiveness and lower the risk of developing these diseases.

This article covers HPV-positive cancers, their symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

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HPV-positive cancer refers to cancer that develops due to infection by HPV. HPV causes infection in the epithelial cells of the skin and mucous membranes. Most infections resolve spontaneously, but persistent infection with high risk HPV types can lead to cellular changes that trigger cancer.

HPV has notable links to nearly all cases of cervical cancer and is a significant cause of other anogenital (anus and genital) and oropharyngeal cancers.

The classification of cancer as HPV-positive stems from the detection of high risk HPV DNA in the cancer cells.

Learn more about HPV.

The symptoms of HPV-positive cancer depend on the type and location of the cancer:

  • Cervical cancer: This involves atypical vaginal bleeding, including bleeding after sexual intercourse, between periods, or after menopause. A person may also have pelvic pain and pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: This involves persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, unexplained weight loss, ear pain, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Anal cancer: This involves anal bleeding, pain or discomfort, itching, discharge, and a lump or mass at the anal opening. Changes in bowel habits may also occur.
  • Penile cancer: This involves changes in the skin of the penis, including thickening, color change, rash, sores, or lumps.
  • Vulvar and vaginal cancer: This involves itching, pain, or tenderness in the vulva. Changes in vulva color or skin, such as a rash or warts, may also occur.

Learn more about HPV symptoms in women.

Individuals need to seek medical advice if they experience persistent symptoms relating to HPV-positive cancers, such as unexplained bleeding, sores that do not heal, or significant changes in bodily functions.

Seeking prompt medical advice can result in prompt diagnosis and treatment, significantly enhancing the person’s outlook.

HPV-positive cancers originate from persistent infections with high risk strains of HPV. Among the 100 types of HPV, experts classify 12 as high risk, including HPV 16 and HPV 18, which are responsible for the majority of HPV-related cancers worldwide.

These high risk HPV types can lead to persistent infections when the body’s immune system cannot clear the virus effectively. Over time, this can cause alterations in cellular DNA, leading to uncontrolled cell growth and the development of precancerous conditions. Without intervention, these conditions may progress to cancer.

Factors that increase the likelihood of persistent HPV infection and subsequent cancer development include:

The progression from infection to cancer underscores the importance of preventive measures in mitigating the risk of these cancers.

Learn more about other HPV-positive cancers.

Diagnosing HPV-positive cancer requires physical examinations, imaging tests, and biopsies.

Healthcare professionals use screening tests such as Pap smears and HPV DNA tests to identify cervical cancer early on. For diagnosing other types of cancers, doctors perform biopsies on suspicious lesions or tumors to detect cancerous cells and HPV DNA directly.

Doctors tailor treatment for HPV-positive cancers depending on the cancer’s type, stage, and location. A comprehensive treatment plan may incorporate one or more of the following:

  • Surgery: With surgery, surgeons remove cancerous tissue while preserving as much typical function as possible. The extent and type of surgery varies depending on the cancer’s location and extent.
  • Radiation therapy: This treatment uses high energy rays or particles to target and destroy cancer cells. It may be external, which involves using a machine to administer treatment outside the body, or internal (brachytherapy), which involves placing radioactive sources near the cancer tissue.
  • Chemotherapy: These potent drugs kill or stop cancer cells from growing and dividing. Doctors can use chemotherapy alone or in combination with other treatments.
  • Targeted therapy: Unlike traditional chemotherapy, targeted therapy focuses on specific genes or proteins contributing to cancer growth and survival. This approach limits damage to healthy cells.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight cancer by stimulating the immune system or providing components of the immune system, such as manufactured immune system proteins.

The choice of treatment stems from several factors, including the person’s overall health, the specific HPV strain a person has, and the presence of other medical conditions. Throughout treatment, patient care teams monitor response to therapy, adjusting strategies as necessary to manage side effects and ensure the best possible outcomes.

Preventing HPV-positive cancers centers on reducing the risk of HPV infection. Key preventive measures include:

  • practicing sex with a barrier method
  • limiting the number of sexual partners
  • undergoing vaccination against HPV

Regular screening tests, such as Pap smears for cervical cancer, also play a crucial role in the early detection of precancerous conditions and allow for timely intervention before cancer develops.

Additionally, promoting awareness about HPV and its link to various cancers is vital for encouraging preventive behaviors.

Can the HPV vaccine prevent it?

Yes, the HPV vaccine effectively prevents infection with high risk HPV strains responsible for the majority of HPV-positive cancers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination for preteens ages 11 to 12 years and individuals up to 26 years who were not adequately vaccinated when younger. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded the use of the Gardasil HPV vaccine to adults ages 27 through 45 years. This recommendation offers additional opportunities for preventing HPV-positive cancers.

Learn more about the HPV vaccine.

The outlook for individuals with HPV-positive cancer varies by cancer type and stage at diagnosis. Early detection and treatment can lead to more positive outcomes.

Individuals with HPV-positive cancer have access to a wide array of support services to help them navigate the complexities of their diagnosis, treatment, and emotional well-being. These resources include professional counseling, peer-led support groups, and dedicated patient advocacy organizations.

The American Cancer Society offers comprehensive information and a 24/7 cancer helpline for questions and support.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)-positive cancers result from infections with high risk strains of HPV. The virus has links to cervical, oropharyngeal, and anal cancers, among others.

Treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Early detection and treatment offer improved outcomes.

Prevention is crucial in combating HPV-positive cancers. The HPV vaccine is invaluable in preventing infection with high risk HPV strains. Furthermore, regular screenings, such as Pap smears and HPV DNA tests, can also detect precancerous conditions early and help prevent the development of cancer.