HPV leading cause of male head and neck cancer

Dr. Anna Giuliano (left)with Dennis Wilmeth (right), who contracted cancer from HPV.

HPV is the virus known for causing cervical cancer in women. Now a new study finds half of all American men are infected with it. The virus is responsible for 32,000 new cancer cases in the U.S. every year, and CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports a growing number of them are men diagnosed with head and neck cancers.

64-year-old Dennis Wilmeth never imagined he would get cancer from a sexually transmitted virus.

Wilmeth had no idea what the HPV virus was.

He and his wife, Karen Greenfield, had both dated before they married four years ago. She knew HPV causes cervical cancer. But tongue cancer, in her husband?

Oral sex now main cause of oral cancer: Who faces biggest risk?

"Nobody else I talked to has ever heard of HPV viruses causing cancer in men," Karen said.

Evidence now shows two-thirds of the cancers of the tongue and tonsils are caused by HPV -- and 80 percent of these cases occur in men.

"It seems like ten or more sexual partners is the threshold, that's where we start seeing a bigger jump in risk," said Dr. Anna Giuliano, author of the study and leader of cancer and epidemiology at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Researchers found that while 50 percent of the 1,158 healthy men ages 18 to 70 who participated in the study were infected with genital HPV, only six percent had the strain that causes most (90 percent) HPV-linked head and neck cancers. In 90 percent of people, the virus goes away on its own. But it may persist in men more than women.

"It takes one situation where you don't clear the virus than you can develop cancer," said Dr. Sara Pai, head and neck surgeon of Johns Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center.

Dennis Wilmeth and his wife are participating in a study to learn more about how this virus spreads through sexual activity.

"There are going to be multiple opportunities for infection to enter the mouth," said Dr. Giuliano. "Whether it's the fingers, whether it's through sexual activity - and that could consist of kissing or oral sex."

After chemo and radiation therapy, Dennis has been cancer-free for a year. There's no embarrassment or blame.

"It's nice to be married and be in love and have someone who cares about you," said Dennis about his wife. "As my daughter would say, she puts up with my stuff."

Today's research is going to provoke more discussion in the coming months about whether public health officials should recommend vaccinating boys against HPV, as they do for girls.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook