KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Doctors are seeing an epidemic in middle-aged people, especially men. It's a cancer that used to be seen mostly in those who smoke or drank heavily. But this upturn is linked to sex, and maybe even just deep kissing.
Helmer Jensen never imagined he'd be in radiation treatment. Not when he had a sore throat in late summer. Not when he was told he had tonsillitis. But when antibiotics didn't help, he went to a specialist who looked down his throat.
"And said Helmer, it's not tonsillitis. It's one of three things and none of them are good," recalled Jensen.
It was cancer.
"Completely shocking because I don't smoke, I don't drink," said Jensen.
He works for the International Mission Board in South Africa. He's home for treatment at the University of Kansas Hospital. There, doctors see a growing number of people, mostly middle-aged men, with throat cancer caused by a virus.
"This is an epidemic level uptick. It is growing at a rate of three to five percent per year," said Dr. Terance Tsue, a specialist in head and neck cancers.
It's an epidemic of throat cancers caused by the human papillomavirus or HPV. It also causes cervical cancer. By 2020, HPV throat cancers are expected to surpass cervical cancers. The virus is sexually transmitted. How does it get in the throat?
"It's usually transmitted by heavy sexual contact -- usually oral genital or oral sex. It can also be shown to be transmitted by heavy french kissing. But there are other pathways we just don't know yet," said Dr. Tsue.
Yes, he said heavy kissing can transmit the virus although it's still unclear whether infection that way actually produces throat cancer.
"Eighty percent of us are exposed to this virus at some point," said the doctor.
The immune system usually fights it off. but in a small percentage of people, it embeds and eventually turns into cancer.
Jensen figures if it can happen to him, "a guy who's been celibate before getting married and been monogamous for 27 years," it could happen to just about anyone.
There is a way to dramatically reduce the risk. The HPV vaccine. Many parents have resisted getting their kids vaccinated. Jensen and his wife had.
"We kinda understood this to be a vaccination for promiscuous teens. And so we weren't aware. I can assure you we're definitely going to get our daughters, all four of them, vaccinated," Jensen said.
K.U. Hospital sits in a state that has one of the lowest HPV vaccination rates in the country, so its pediatric clinic has started calling it the "anti-cancer" vaccine.
"And that really gets people's attention. Even if they know what it's about, just putting those terms on it," said Dr. Stephen Lauer, a pediatrician.
Unlike cervical cancer, there is no screening for HPV throat cancer. If you have a lump on one side of the neck that persists for more than two weeks, see a head and neck specialist. The same with a persistent sore throat.
Jensen's cancer was caught fairly early, but he still faces grueling treatment.
"God's given me a peace going through this process, but I have no illusion that's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better."
Before he can win his cancer battle.