HPV Cancer Resources

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

Helpful Information for Parents, Patients, Partners, and Providers

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Cancer Staging

Let’s Start With Demographics: Who Gets What Kinds of Head and Neck Cancers ?

If you’re on this page, you’ve likely been diagnosed, or had a loved one diagnosed, with oral, throat, or head and neck cancer. Is there a difference? These terms are rather vague, as there are lots of places in your mouth and throat that can develop cancer, and symptoms (like lumps) sometimes appear on your neck as well. For our purposes we will divide these cancers into two groups: oral cavity cancers (includes the gums, salivary glands, the floor of your mouth, the hard palate at the top of your mouth, and the front two thirds of your tongue) and oropharyngeal cancers (includes your tonsils, the base (back one-third) of your tongue, your soft palate, and the back of your throat). Technically, all of these are “head and neck” cancers, are they are also known as squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) because of the type of cell they arise in.

Historically, squamous cell carcinomas (cancers) of the oral cavity (OCSCC) and oropharynx (OPSCC) were grouped together as essentially the same diseases. The terms “oral” and “oropharyngeal” were both used to describe these cancers. Nowadays the terms “oral” and “oropharyngeal” have very distinct meanings, and they are no longer used interchangeably. This is because clinical research has distinguished one from the other in many respects other than just where they are located in your mouth. These include other risk factors (such as smoking), patient demographics, the actual pathology of the tumor, and how they should be treated.

As you can see in the chart below:
Oral cavity cancers are mostly associated with smoking and/or drinking.

Oropharyngeal cancers come in two types, as indicated below, and are grouped according to whether they are associated with an HPV infection (HPV positive) or no infection (HPV negative).
HPV negative oropharyngeal cancers are, like oral cancers, mostly associated with smoking and drinking.
HPV positive oropharyngeal cancers are actually caused by the viral infection.

Most of the visitors to this website will have HPV+ OPSCC, but the easiest way to describe these cancers is to say that you have HPV positive oropharyngeal cancer.

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SES in the above chart refers to socio-econmic status. Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing. Otalgia means earache.

Staging Details

From WebMD:
Most cancers that involve a tumor are staged in five broad groups. These are usually referred to with Roman numerals. Other kinds, like blood cancers, lymphoma, and brain cancer, have their own staging systems, but they all tell you how advanced the cancer is.

Stage O means there's no cancer, only abnormal cells with the potential to become cancer. This is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I means the cancer is small and only in one area. This is also called early-stage cancer.

Stage II and III mean the cancer is larger and has grown into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

Stage IV means the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. It's also called advanced or metastatic cancer.

Another approach used by doctors to determine your overall cancer stage is the TNM system, short for tumor, node, and metastasis. Your doctor will measure each of these and give it a number or an "X" if a measurement can't be determined. The symbols are a bit different for each type of cancer, but this is generally what they mean:

Tumor (T): "T" followed by a number from 0-4 tells you how large the tumor is and sometimes where it's located. TO means there is no measurable tumor. The higher the number, the bigger the tumor.

Node (N): "N" followed by a number from 0-3 tells you if the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes. These are glands that normally filter things like viruses and bacteria before they can infect other parts of your body. NO means lymph nodes aren't involved. A higher number means the cancer is in more lymph nodes, and farther away from the original tumor.

Metastasis (M): "M" is followed by either 0 or 1. It says if the cancer has spread to organs and tissues in other parts of your body. A 0 means it hasn't, and a 1 means it has.

The staging system for HPV positive oropharyngeal cancers has changed over time as doctors have gotten a clearer understanding of what causes the disease. HPV positive oropharyngeal cancers are actually treated as a separate disease than HPV negative oropharyngeal cancers. There are more details at other locations on this website, but in general (and all cancer cases are different), oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV are much more treatable, and have a much higher five-year survival rate, than HPV negative cancers.

The table below show you the old and the new staging system. I wouldn’t worry about the details, but if you’re interested ask your doctor to explain it to you. The older staging system listed here is from the 7th edition (2010) of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). It was realized over the past few years that this older staging system may not accurately reflect the differences in stage-related prognosis as a resource to guide patient treatment plans. Therefore, the AJCC released the 8th edition of the cancer staging manual, which became effective January 1st 2017. This new staging system contains significant modifications compared to the earlier guidelines, and are influence how your head and neck cancer will be treated. Patients who were diagnosed prior to 2017 will have had their cancers assigned a stage using the old system, those after Jan. 2017 will have been done using the new system.

The two cannot generally be directly compared, that is, the exact same cancer might have gotten a different classification before 2017 than afterwards.

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Just to be clear: I am NOT a doctor. The information contained in this website is NOT intended as a recommendation for the self management of health problems, medical conditions, or wellness. It is not intended to endorse or recommend any particular type of medical treatment, physician, or treatment facility. Should any reader have any health care related questions, I strongly suggest you call or consult your physician or healthcare provider before looking into other things on the internet. The information contained in this website should NOT be used by any reader to disregard medical and/or health related advice or provide a basis to delay consultation with a physician or a qualified healthcare provider. HPV Cancer Resources disclaims any liability based on information provided in this website.