Cancer Causing HPV Can Hide In The Throat

In May 2015, to my complete surprise, I was diagnosed with stage four Human Papillomavirus (HPV) throat cancer.

It was such a shock because I thought I was showing signs of glandular fever – a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, food being caught in my throat – and, as a cyclist and runner, I was very fit and healthy.

I wasn’t told exactly how long I might have had the cancer before it was detected, but there was a five month lead up to my diagnosis where I was tired, experiencing headaches and feeling generally unwell.

HPV can be contracted through skin-to-skin contact, usually involving sex, including oral sex. Around 80% of the world’s population will get some form of the virus in their lifetimes, but most people with HPV will not develop cancer.

But it is the cause of nearly all cervical cancers (girls between 12 and 18 are offered the HPV vaccine on the NHS). It can also cause head, neck and throat cancers. But, until now, the vaccine has not been offered to boys. I’ve campaigned for this, with a video I made in 2016 and have spoken about my experience on TV. Seeing reports that teenage boys are to be offered the vaccine has given me a real sense of legacy.

Advertisement
Advertisement

When I got my diagnosis, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. The immediate task was to reduce the massive tumour in my throat before it blocked my airway completely. After a three hour operation I found myself in intensive care with a tracheostomy (an opening at the front of the neck so that a tube can be inserted into the wind pipe).

Managing this was a full time job in itself. There was suction and drainage, plus hours plugged into the nebuliser (a device used to administer medication). Aside from the pain, the sheer shock of the whole thing was the ultimate smack in the face.

I told myself that it was the pain and discomfort that was keeping me alive. But of course there were the drugs to reduce this: codeine, ibuprofen, cocodamol and morphine.

Eight weeks of chemotherapy reduced the size of the tumour even further. This meant that the trachi could come out and I could be measured up for my radiotherapy mask. Every day for six weeks we drove to the hospital for radiotherapy. While I was pinned down, and held still by, the mask, which covered my head and shoulders, my tumour was zapped with pin point accuracy.

The neck is a busy area housing a lot essential functions. It wasn’t long before I stopped producing saliva and couldn’t swallow – eating became a real problem. There were periods where I had to be feed through a tube straight into my stomach. But I was fortunate, there are many who find it impossible to eat at all during and post treatment.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I made myself eat, but there was no pleasure, I had lost all sense of taste. I had extensive ulcers that were painful and went on to stop me eating a normal diet for months.

In all I went through seven months of radical treatment; I had massive doses of chemo and radiotherapy. My physical recovery took almost a year but the emotional impact was far reaching. It affected my confidence – I had major anxiety, which had an impact on my relationships with my wife and daughter.

There’s evidence to suggest that ongoing depression is more common among those who have suffered head and neck cancers. With good health my recovery was quick by normal standards. In hospital I saw other HPV cancer patients whose physical and mental deterioration was rapid and devastating. It can take years to fully recover, physically and emotionally, from this disease and its treatment – some never do.

From very early on I received ‘wraparound treatment,’ in other words, treatment that took into account all my various needs. At every stage I was told what was happening and what I should expect. Throughout the treatment I met weekly with a dietician and speech therapist. Specialist nurses were a phone call away day or night. It was comforting and reassuring.

Soon I recognised the injustice in it all – HPV cancers are completely preventable. The common myth is that by just vaccinating girls against cervical cancer boys would be protected too.

My daughter was among the first to receive the HPV jab in 2008. The vaccination should have been made available to boys then. The decision to make the vaccination available to teenage boys will save much pain and loss of life.