Last year, I discovered a lump in my neck. I left it for two weeks thinking it was a virus or a reaction to a cat scratch. Not so, it was HPV tonsil cancer.
HPV is the human papilloma virus, transmitted through the mouth or sexual intercourse. It can be fatal if not detected in time but the good news is that the cure rate is over 90%.
This cancer was thought to be just one of the many oral cancers until ten years ago. Now more is known and there are vaccines to prevent infection.
I contracted HPV in my late teens, it was dealt with. It then reoccurred a few years later through a smear test where it had infected my cervix. Again, it was dealt with. Then, over 30 years later it was back.
Although I had my tonsils removed ten years before, the root stays in situ because of the complex throat system. Cancer had formed.
I had no symptoms, other than the lump in my neck. I had a slightly sore tongue but put that down to a broken tooth that I was too cowardly to have mended. It was the cancer, it had spread to my tongue and the back of my throat, although in small patches.
Luckily, it was diagnosed quickly via a fine needle biopsy, a further biopsy under a general anaesthetic and within two weeks I was receiving treatment.
The treatment is unpleasant. A cage is made for your head and neck for radiotherapy to keep you still whilst it is strapped down around you. Radiotherapy is administered every weekday for six weeks. You are given two bouts of chemotherapy, one at the beginning and one at the end. The good news is that you don’t lose your hair. More good news is that you lose weight, but the bad news is the side effects.
After two weeks of treatment, all food ingested is like glass at the back of your throat and tongue because the radiotherapy creates ulcers. It gradually gets worse. If you’re lucky you can manage puréed food, porridge, yoghurts and some other dairy. I used food supplement drinks.
Before you start the treatment you are offered a stomach stent so that food can be administered straight into your stomach via a backpack. I declined.
Co-codamol is the drug that allows semi pain-free swallowing, together with a throat anaesthetic and meds to deal with the ulcers. Oral morphine was offered too but I declined.
The saliva glands are attacked and dry mouth is unpleasant and makes chewing, swallowing and breaking down food difficult. It is a full-time job managing the side effects.
Seven months on from my treatment I can now eat without opioids but wine still tastes like vinegar. I have c80% of my taste back and my saliva has returned, although it is thick and foamy. It is difficult to eat toast and dense meat. My voice is nearly back to normal. I still get tired, occasionally.
Teeth can be affected and future extractions may not be possible because of healing problems. Your saliva may not return, nor your taste.
Luckily, more is known about this cancer and raising awareness means more are being diagnosed earlier.
HPV causes around five per cent of all cancers worldwide. The vaccination programme in girls has prevented 80% of cervix cancers.
It appears most commonly as cervical cancer but can also cause cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and mouth.
HPV is to blame for almost all of the 3,100 new cases of cervical cancer annually — which kills 850 women a year and is the cause of death for men with oral cancer.
The virus, which can be passed on during oral sex and kissing, is also behind many cases of cancer in young people. That is why I urge girls to have vaccination. Shockingly, it is only being made available for 12/13-year-old boys. However, you can obtain it privately for £150-450, depending on the age of the boy.
Following the end of my treatment last September, my initial three-month scan gave the all clear. A follow up in January with a full body CATscan confirmed this.
I see my consultants for a monthly checkup where they insert a spaghetti-like camera up my nose to look at the back up my throat. It’s unpleasant but bearable.
This cancer is treatable. Please don’t ignore recurrent sore throats, lumps in the neck, difficulty in swallowing, changes in your tongue. Remember, I only had one symptom.
And get your children vaccinated.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.