Cancer survivor Robert Fox

Robert Fox survived HPV-associated throat cancer. He's now eager to spread the word that men can get cancer through HPV, just like women. 

It's not just ladies. 

Robert Fox, 42, contracted and survived cancer that developed from an HPV infection, the virus best known for causing cervical cancer in women. And he wants men to know they can get it, too. 

"It was a shock," he said. "It's a cancer I never thought I'd get." 

Fox was diagnosed with throat cancer two years ago. He had a really raw sore throat for weeks that showed no signs of abating. He went to his family physician, who prescribed a round of antibiotics.

"I didn't think it was going to be anything more than an infection," he said.

When nothing changed, his doctor sent him in for scans, which pointed to cancer, and then in for a biopsy of his throat tissue, which confirmed it.

The doctor's office called him while he was at work to give him the diagnosis. Fox told his boss about the phone call and asked if he could have a few minutes to absorb the news.

"I just sat in my truck and had my moment," he said. "And I called my wife, and she had her moment."

The diagnosis was stark; the cancer was real. The good news, Fox said, was that they caught it relatively early and that it was treatable. 

What surprised him, if anything can be surprising after a sore throat turns into a cancer diagnosis, was the cause. 

His throat cancer was caused by a strain of human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. The disease is so common that most sexually active men or women contract HPV at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Only a few end up with cancer as a result. 

Sean Demars, Fox's doctor and an ear, nose and throat specialist with St. Vincent Healthcare, wasn't as surprised as Fox with the diagnosis. 

Men contracting HPV-associated cancer "has increased significantly," Demars said. And specifically, he's seeing it in the throat. 

HPV infections in the throat are almost always contracted through oral sex, he said. 

So for adults who are sexually active, it's important to check the mouth and throat on a monthly basis. Tonsils and the base of the tongue are the two areas most likely to be infected, Demars said. 

He tells people to look for lumps, bumps and sores that seem to persist. 

"Basically, anything abnormal that's not going away," he said. 

Most adults need to be aware of throat cancer in general, Demars said. Sure, people with multiple sex partners are at risk, but so too are those who smoke or chew tobacco and those who regularly drink good amounts of alcohol, he said. 

It's considered a high-risk behavior group, and those in that group need to be regularly checking for the warning signs, Demars said.

"If you catch it early, it's easy to get it cured," he said. 

Drug makers have developed an HPV vaccine and the CDC recommends all boys and girls between 11 and 12 get vaccinated. Catch-up vaccines are available for men up to the age of 21 and for women up to the age of 26. 

For Fox, it's pretty straightforward: Men need to be aware, and they need to be proactive.

Fox considers himself lucky. He's cancer-free and in relatively great health. His cancer treatments included chemotherapy and radiation, which killed one of his saliva glands and zapped a number of his taste buds. 

Still, it's preferable to the alternative, he said. 

"Don't be hard-headed about it," he said. "It's not just women."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.