Even though the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for certain head and neck cancers, its presence could make all the difference in terms of survival, especially for African Americans with throat cancer, according to a newly published study. The study shows that African Americans who are HPV-positive have better outcomes than African Americans without HPV.

African Americans who are HPV negative also fared worse than whites with oropharyngeal cancer, regardless of HPV status. Oropharyngeal cancer affects part of the throat, the base of the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate, and the walls of the pharynx.

“This study adds to the mounting evidence of HPV as a racially linked sexual behavior lifestyle risk factor impacting survival outcomes for both African American and Caucasian patients with oropharyngeal cancer,” said lead author Maria J. Worsham, PhD, Director of Research, Department of Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. The study was published online in the journal Clinical Cancer Research (2013; doi:10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-12-3003).

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The American Cancer Society estimates approximately 36,000 people in the United States will develop oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers in 2013; an estimated 6,850 people will die of these cancers. These cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women. They are about equally common in blacks and in whites.

To compare survival outcomes in HPV-positive and HPV-negative African Americans with oropharyngeal cancer, Worsham and her team conducted a retrospective study of 118 patients. Among the study group, 67 were HPV negative and 51 were HPV positive. A total of 42% of those in the study were African American.

The study found that HPV positivity is less likely in African Americans and in those older than 50 years. It also found that those with late-stage oropharyngeal cancer are more likely to be unmarried and more likely to be HPV positive. The risk of death was 2.7 times higher for HPV-negative patients compared with HPV-positive patients. The HPV groups differed with significantly poorer survival for HPV-negative African Americans versus HPV-positive African Americans, HPV-positive whites and HPV-negative whites.

Overall, the study finds HPV has a substantial impact on overall survival in African-Americans with oropharyngeal cancer.