The news earlier this month that 1 in 9 men — some 11.5 percent — are infected with the oral form of human papillomavirus (HPV) didn’t surprise Michael Becker — but it does alarm him.
That’s because Becker, 48, a married father of two teenage daughters and Philadelphia, Pa. resident, knows all too well how dangerous oral HPV potentially is.
For the last two years, the former biotech executive, Wall Street financier and author of “A Walk With Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur” has been battling advanced (Stage IV) oropharyngeal cancer — and publicly advocating for both awareness about HPV-related cancers and the need to vaccinate kids and young adults.
His disease started in a single tonsil — and he never had a symptom. It was self-discovered on the day before Thanksgiving in 2015 when a lump appeared on his neck.
Despite seven weeks of daily radiation and three rounds of concurrent chemotherapy, last year the disease metastasized to his lungs.
Because the cancer has spread below the collarbone, Becker’s doctors have deemed his condition “terminal” — meaning that the chemo treatment goal has shifted from eradication to simply slowing progression.
“At this point, it’s about buying time,” said Becker.
And getting the word out.
“I’d worked in the biomedical industry for more than 20 years, but until my diagnosis, I had no real appreciation for the connection between HPV and cancer in men,” said Becker. “I had always associated it with cervical cancer.”
Historically, that was the case.
However, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s latest statistics, while the 40,000 Americans who are diagnosed annually with HPV-related cancer are 60 percent female, the incidence of male HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer has spiked dramatically — with men being four times more likely than women to develop it.
In fact, male HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is now more prevalent than HPV-related cervical cancer.
Researchers say 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV (smoking and/or alcohol consumption factor into the majority of the rest) but are confounded as to explain: 1) why so many more men than women develop oropharyngeal cancer; 2) how oral HPV is transmitted.
As to the former, Ashish A. Deshmukh, an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, told CNN, “One suspects that the HPV persists longer (means doesn’t clear easily) among men and that might be causing increased prevalence.” He also surmised that, after an initial HPV infection, women might develop a stronger resistance.
As to the latter, despite experts knowing that genital HPV is transmitted via sexual contact, less is understood about the transmission of oral HPV.
The CDC says, “Although some studies suggest that oral HPV may be passed on during oral sex (from mouth-to-genital or mouth-to-anus contact) or open-mouthed (“French”) kissing, the likelihood of getting HPV from kissing or having oral sex with someone who has HPV is not known. More research is needed to understand exactly how people get and give oral HPV infections.”
Thus, Becker urges parents of prepubescent children to “have that awkward conversation with your child’s pediatrician about HPV vaccinations.”
Becker concedes that “while it’s not pleasant for parents to think about their youngsters eventually being sexually active, what we’re talking about here isn’t really an STD vaccination — it’s a cancer vaccination.”
One that Becker and his wife had administered to their daughters at the appropriate age.
And one, he said, “I wish had been available to me when I was their age.”