Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- Actor Michael Douglas has battled and beaten throat cancer, and now he's highlighting something that doctors have been telling us for years. Sexually transmitted viruses in the human papillomavirus (HPV) family can also cause oral cancers.

In 2001 we showed you a man who literally had most of his face rebuilt at the LSU Dental School after oral cancer from smoking. It was a prostheses that he snapped on when going in public.

Now oral cancer is on the rise.

'Now we're seeing a prevalence of younger adults, sometimes in their mid 30s to 40s, early 50s, who are coming with a history of, not as much of smoking or alcohol intake, but having these cancers that involves mostly the oropharynx, which is the tonsil and the base of the tongue,' said Dr. Rohan Walvekar, associate professor of ENT at LSU Health Sciences Center, with a head and neck oncology subspecialty.

From 2000 to 2009, incidence rates increased for HPV-associated cancer of the oropharynx.

We know there is a very strong connection with smoking or chewing tobacco and oral cancer. Add alcohol to your tobacco addiction, and the risk of the disfiguring cancer is even higher. But certain strains of the HPV that can cause cancers of the cervix in women, as well as genital and anal cancers in men and women, can also cause cancer in the mouth and throat.

'People who tend to have oral sex for example have a higher incidence of having HPV related cancers,' explained Dr. Walvekar.

HPV is very common in people. Ninety percent will clear it from their bodies, never knowing they had it. For some though, it will stay on the tissue, causing changes in the cells.

Some dentists offer an inexpensive wash to find early cell changes in the mouth with a special light, while others are still looking into the effectiveness of this screening.

What's key is early detection, when da Vinci robotic surgery can remove the cancerous tissue without the disfiguring scars and removal of tissue. But sadly, in this area that is not happening.

'About 60 percent of all patients who come to us from this region, come with advanced tumors, 60 to 70 percent with advanced tumors,' said Dr. Walvekar, who is passionate about changing those numbers.

That's the reason why yearly oral and genital screening and pap smears are so important.

There is an approved vaccine to protect against the most concerning strains of HPV.

It is especially recommended for young people, boys and girls. The next free oral cancer screening is July 20 in Morgan City at Cannata's. It's sponsored by LSUHSC andMary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. You can find more information by calling 225-215-1234.

For more on the LSU Health Sciences Center oral health clinic in New Orleans, call 504-568-4785.

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