What does it mean if you’re diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer? In this blog, information development nurse Hilary answers some FAQs.

What is HPV?
HPV stands for the human papilloma virus. It’s actually a family of viruses that affect different areas of the body in different ways. These viruses are very common and rarely cause any long-term damage to the body. However, a few viruses in the HPV family (called high-risk HPVs) have been linked to certain types of cancer.

How does HPV cause cancer?
Our bodies are usually pretty efficient at getting rid of infections. But if, for some reason, a high-risk HPV stays in the body for a long time, it may cause damage to cells in the area that’s infected. Eventually, these abnormal cell changes may develop into cancer. High-risk HPV has been linked to cancer of the cervix, head and neck, anus, vulva, vagina and penis.

How does HPV spread?
The virus is carried on the skin, particularly the mucous membranes inside the mouth, throat, genital area or anus.

It is passed on through close, skin-to-skin contact and spreads easily from person to person during any type of sexual contact. Using a condom or other barrier contraception may reduce the risk of infection with HPV, but it does not offer complete protection.

What difference does it make having an HPV-related cancer?
For many people, having an HPV-related cancer makes no difference to the treatment they have. However, with ongoing research we will hopefully start to understand more about HPV-related cancers. This may help doctors predict:

  • how some cancers are likely to behave
  • which treatments will be most effective.

How did I get HPV?
There is no way to know how you got HPV. Some infections that are passed on during sex can be traced to one sexual partner. But HPV is so common and easily spread, that it is not possible to know exactly how or when a person has caught it. It probably takes years, or even decades, for the virus to cause the damage to cells that develops into cancer. So, infection is likely to happen many years before cancer is diagnosed.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes stigma attached to sexually transmitted infections. It’s worth saying again: HPV is very common. Most people will have it at some point in their life but usually will not even know they have it.

Having an HPV-related cancer does not reveal who you have had sex with, or what type of sexual contact you have had. Even couples in a long-term relationship can be affected. HPV is not a sign that partners have had sex outside the relationship.

Are my partners at risk from HPV?
If you are diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer, you may worry that a partner’s health has been affected by the virus too. This is very unlikely. Partners of people affected by HPV-related cancer rarely develop an HPV-related cancer themselves.

Partners should still take part in any screening offered to them, for example:

  • Cervical screening - women, and trans men who still have a cervix, should have cervical screening. It is a simple test that checks for abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix. This is an effective way of finding and treating any damage caused by HPV before cervical cancer can develop. We have more information about having cervical screening.
  • Anal cancer screening - anal cancer screening is sometimes offered to people who have a higher risk of developing anal cancer. If you or your partner are worried about your risk of anal cancer, ask your GP, local sexual health clinic or HIV clinic for advice.

This image shows a quote from Cathy which reads: ‘It’s one of those things that you want to get done to make sure everything is all right. It’s not something you can see that might be wrong from the outside.’

Where can I get more information?
We have more about HPV and cancer and about different types of cancer. If you would like to talk to a nurse, call us on 0808 808 00 00.

To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

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