Overcoming HPV - Throat Cancer With Broward Health

It was a shocking moment when 56-year-old Bill found out that the lump on his neck was cancer caused by the Human papillomavirus (HPV). 

“It was surreal,” Bill recalled. “I know these things happen to other people, but I was in such great shape that I didn’t think they should be happening to me!”

A biopsy of the neck mass revealed cancer cells positive for HPV-16, a strain of HPV that poses a high risk of developing throat cancer. Bill’s cancer started in his tonsil and spread to a lymph node that he could feel in his neck.

The retired engineer and non-smoker, who considered himself healthy and fit, was in disbelief. 

Traditionally, throat cancer was considered a smoking-related cancer, which required intensive treatment. Today, HPV-related throat cancer is becoming more common. Even though the HPV-related version of throat cancer has a better treatment outcome and response to treatment, it had been treated with the same aggressive regimen. Patients then struggled to cope with the side effects of the treatment. 

Until recently, patients like Bill would have undergone treatment that included high-dose radiation with chemotherapy. However, thanks to Ryan H. Sobel, M.D., director of head and neck cancer, head and neck oncologic surgery at Broward Health, Bill was treated with a more modern approach for his throat cancer. 

The personalized treatment he received combined new advanced surgical techniques with a reduced dose of radiation alone. This approach effectively treated the cancer while minimizing the side effects of high-dose radiation and eliminating the need for chemotherapy. 

“The majority of Americans contract HPV at some point in their lives,” Dr. Sobel explained. “While it is technically a sexually transmitted disease, most aren’t even aware they’ve had the virus, and most don’t even have an active clinical infection from the virus. It just sits dormant in the tonsil tissue. Then, decades later, some people go on to develop tonsil (or throat) cancer.”

Dr. Sobel offered Bill a minimally invasive treatment that involved transoral robotic surgery (TORS) using the da Vinci surgical robot and removal of the lymph nodes in the neck. The treatment was personalized and coordinated by the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer team members at Broward Health. Bill then went through six weeks of radiation treatment to ensure cancer cells were absent in the area. No chemotherapy was needed.

“I felt so good about my decision to use Dr. Sobel,” Bill said. “It was like talking to a friend.”  

Bill briefly lost his sense of taste, but it soon returned. His positive outlook and close communication with Dr. Sobel’s team helped him navigate the treatment process. 

The surgery and radiatBion approach were so successful, Bill never even needed a feeding tube, which is often required during the final weeks of radiation. He was able to eat and swallow food by mouth throughout the course of his treatment.

“Patient education is key, and our team believes that knowledge is power,” Dr. Sobel said. “We teach patients about their disease and help them learn what to expect, along with the risks and benefits of their treatment and how it will affect their quality of life moving forward.”

Broward Health’s head and neck cancer team focuses on maintaining and restoring its patients’ quality of life, with involvement from speech and swallow therapists, lymphedema and physical therapists.

This cancer can be prevented if the patient is vaccinated in their youth, prior to exposure to HPV. Dr. Sobel recommends vaccinating both boys and girls with Gardasil™, which women up to age 45 can get as well. He recommends talking about the vaccine with a pediatrician or family practitioner.

Dr. Sobel also advises those who notice a firm, persistent lump in their neck that doesn’t disappear within two weeks to see a head and neck surgeon or primary care doctor as soon as possible for an evaluation. 

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Sobel, call 954-320-3304. To learn more about robotic surgery at Broward Health, visit BrowardHealth.org/Robotics.
Robotic Surgery