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Health & Fitness

Cancer survivor advocating for men's HPV awareness

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Published:   |   Updated: July 29, 2013 at 06:59 AM

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Seven years ago, David Hastings got the worst news of his life. He had oral cancer, and a grueling series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments would be necessary if he wanted to survive.

Undergoing months of the "barbaric" treatment was awful, he said, but so was the knowledge that five different doctors couldn't explain how a 56-year-old with no history of smoking or heavy drinking ended up with such an aggressive cancer.

"If something is trying to kill you, don't you want to find out what it is?" the Gulfport accountant and business owner asked over and over.

It took months, but Hastings learned his cancer was linked to HPV, the sexually transmitted virus long known for its connection to deadly cervical cancers. The answer was elusive because few scientists at that time were looking at the virus and male cancers, he said.

Today, doctors know that about 5,600 cases of oral cancer diagnosed each year are tied to the human papillomavirus, a number increasing at a rate faster than that of tobacco- or alcohol-related oral cancers. That's likely because more hospitals and cancer centers, including Moffitt Cancer Center, are able to test for the male HPV cancer connection on site.

Still, in June, when actor Michael Douglas announced that his stage 4 cancer was linked to oral sex with women, the news spurred nervous giggles, gossipy speculation and a lot of "who knew?" comments across the country.

The public reaction shows how much remains to be learned about the deadly disease, said Hastings, a volunteer patient advocate with the Oral Cancer Foundation.

Since 2006, the co-owner of Gulport's Habana Café has testified in front of Florida legislators and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He estimates he now spends about two hours a day educating people about HPV and oral cancer. The self-described "staunch Republican," who keeps a framed photo of himself posing with President Ronald Reagan in his office, said his advocacy is not political.

"I became so vocal because there was a total lack of education to the public and front-line doctors," said Hastings, now 65 and cancer-free.

Douglas' announcement also shows how much significant science around these cancers has emerged in just the past few years, said Anna Giuliano, director of Moffitt's Center for Infection Research in Cancer.

"The scientific literature keeps growing and growing," said Giuliano, one of the doctors who was unable seven years ago to definitively tell Hastings how he contracted oral cancer, despite her own experience in HPV research.

Researchers, including Giuliano and others based at Moffitt, today are leading multiple international studies aimed at identifying who is most at risk for HPV cancers, why, and the treatment options for men with HPV-related cancers.

At Moffitt, research looking at the history of men with HPV-related cancers has been underway since 2005, Giuliano said. Her grants initially focused on male genital cancers, but now include oral cancers.

The most recent findings were published this month in the medical journal The Lancet.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, the CDC says. Almost every sexually active person - straight, gay or bisexual - will be exposed in his or her lifetime. But many will never develop cancer.

Hastings, a "product of the '60s" who believes he was infected decades ago, long before he met his wife of 20 years, said men of his generation need to know this.

"My cancer was not caused by tobacco or alcohol. It was caused by a virus," he said. "Men need to pay attention."

These infection rates, and the extreme risks of HPV-related cervical cancers, prompted a lot of the initial research two decades ago. Giuliano said initial HPV research focused on women, but evidence is building concerning HPV-related cancers and men.

"In the background has been the question, 'What about the guys?' " she said.

Also, a lot of attention has been paid to HPV vaccination, Giuliano said. The CDC and others see it as the most effective way to prevent future infections, and recommend it for anyone younger than 26 years.

Giuliano said the research now underway at Moffitt looks long-term at adults who missed the opportunity to get the vaccine. For example, researcher Andy Trotti is building on the growing understanding that HPV-related oncology patients have higher survival rates than men with other types of oral cancer.

Trotti, of the Radiation Treatment Oncology Group, wonders if HPV cancer patients can be given a less-aggressive treatment and face a similar chance of long-term survival.

Hastings, who has vivid memories of his treatment, said he welcomes research that could reduce the severity of the treatment. The radiation burns your throat and the ability to taste is gone within a week. Sores develop, as does constant nausea. Taking pain pills or attempting to swallow lukewarm liquids bordered on torture, he said.

"That research is so important for our generation," he said.

Advancements like this are critical, and results have been swift when compared to other cancer research, Giuliano said. But that's still not enough.

"Between the two groups, we hopefully can in the next few years make a great difference," she said.

mshedden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7365

Twitter: @MaryShedden

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