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Patient Survives HPV-Related Cancer, Promotes Vaccination

August 13, 2019

Remembering her last “well” day is no problem for Tina Hillhouse. The medical aesthetician saw several patients and performed a laser ablation.

“The next day, I broke out with clear blisters on the back of my throat,” recalls Tina, 51, of Overland Park, Kansas.

The blisters disappeared, but after about a month her throat still wasn’t right. She went to a local clinic for help. After a strep test, she was told that she probably had a virus. “It looked white, but they didn’t think it was anything serious. They recommended that I follow up with my family practice doctor if I wasn’t better in 30 days,” she says.

Tina saw her general practitioner, who immediately suspected something more serious and sent her to an ear, nose and throat specialist at an area clinic. “I had polyps on my throat and in my nostrils, by this point,” she says.

The ENT specialist surgically removed the polyps, which revealed stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma. But Tina had additional surgical complications, including issues with swallowing and dental problems. At this point, she turned to Douglas Girod, MD, ENT surgeon at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. 

“He’s a savior. I can’t say enough positive things about him,” Tina says. “My friends and colleagues told me to go to The University of Kansas Hospital when I started to get sick. And my family doctor did, too. I have no question that I went to the right place.”

Battling HPV-related cancer

Tina's cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus. HPVs are a group of more than 200 related viruses, according to the National Cancer Institute. About a dozen have been identified as high-risk, leading to cancer. Tina was diagnosed with at least 14 different types of HPV in her system, 4 of which are linked to cancer.

Dr. Girod says Tina's cancer was located in her oral pharynx region, specifically in the tonsils. In the United States, more than 50% of these cancer cases are caused by HPV, according to the NCI. Her cancer also affected 1 lymph node.

Tina's treatment involved radiation of the head and neck at The University of Kansas Cancer Center in Overland Park. There, she saw James Coster, MD, radiation oncologist. Tina says she battled hard to stay well, driving herself to each radiation session, because she didn’t want her daughter to know how sick she really felt.

"I just wanted to fly under the radar," she says. "And, I wanted my life back to normal."

Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer is demanding for patients, Dr. Girod says.

“Plastic molds are made for a patient’s head, face and shoulders. To make sure the radiation hits the targeted areas and not other places, patients are fastened to the table during therapy sessions through their masks,” he explains. “It’s uncomfortable and can be difficult for patients.”

Treatment side effects can be equally challenging, he says. The ability to speak, swallow and taste may be significantly altered. Appearance also may be seriously affected. Patients may lose weight, and there can be other issues as well.

Tina suffered a bone infection in her jaw and also battles dental issues.

“The pain was horrific,” she says of the infection. To repair her jaw and heal her throat, Tina had hyperbaric oxygen treatment at The University of Kansas Hospital. She also sees a nutritionist because she has mouth sensitivities and difficulty eating. Still, she doesn’t let it get her down.

“I received my 5-year pin from Dr. Girod, and I’m cured!” she says. “I could be bothered by these side effects, but I’m thankful to be alive and healthy. I’m focusing on feeling good and raising my daughter, who is 13 and a half. It’s all about how you decide to deal with adversity.”

“Tina had a hard course with numerous complications,” says Dr. Girod. “But she buckled into the situation ready to fight. Her resilience was truly remarkable.”

<h2-bottom:>Advocating for HPV vaccination  </h2-bottom:>

Not wanting others to experience what she has, Tina is an advocate of the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is FDA-approved to be given at age 9, and recommended for preteen boys and girls at age 11 or 12, so they are protected before being exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2-dose HPV vaccination is given 6 to 12 months apart.

“When there is an immunization that will prevent cancer, I think it’s only sensible to take it,” Tina advises. "Young people should get it so they don’t end up with cancer like me.” Currently, Kansas and Missouri are among states with the lowest vaccination rates in the nation.

Dr. Girod advocates for the effectiveness of the HPV immunization. “The data suggest that many strains of HPV are entirely preventable if this 2-dose immunization is administered to younger people,” he says.

“The vaccine was designed to help patients develop immunity to high-risk strains of HPV, and we believe it is effective,” he adds. “Research has shown a reduction in cervical cancer among immunized individuals, and data suggest it is effective for certain forms of head and neck cancers, too.”

Tina also thinks there needs to be more education about HPV. “A lot of people believe it’s only spread through sexual contact," she says. "But I can tell you that it’s transmitted in other ways, too. This vaccine can prevent an escalating problem for many people."

Survivor Tina Hillhouse talks about her battle with cancer and the vaccine that prevents HPV-related cancers.
As with all treatments, individual patient results vary. It is important to discuss your treatment options with your healthcare provider.

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