Significant Changes in Sexual Behavior After a Diagnosis of Human Papillomavirus-Positive and Human Papillomavirus-Negative Oral Cancer

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Sexual behavior and oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection are risk factors for oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). The effects of OSCC diagnosis and treatment on subsequent relationship stress and sexual behavior are unknown.


Incident cases of HPV-positive or HPV-negative OSCC in patients who had a partnered relationship and partners of patients with oropharyngeal cancer were eligible for a study in which surveys were administered at diagnosis and at the 6-month follow-up time point to assess relationship distress, HPV transmission and concerns about health consequences, and sexual behavior. The frequency distributions of responses, stratified by tumor HPV status, were compared at baseline and follow-up.


In total, 262 patients with OSCC and 81 partners were enrolled. Among the patients, 142 (54.2%) had HPV-positive OSCC, and 120 (45.8%) had HPV-negative OSCC. Relationship distress was infrequently reported, and 69% of patients felt that their relationship had strengthened since the cancer diagnosis. Both HPV-positive patients (25%) and their partners (14%) reported feelings of guilt or responsibility for the diagnosis of an HPV-caused cancer. Concern over sexual, but not nonsexual, HPV transmission to partners was reported by 50%. Significant declines in the frequency of vaginal and oral sexual behaviors were reported at follow-up, regardless of tumor HPV status. From baseline to 6 months, significant increases in abstinence from vaginal sex (from 10% to 34%; P < .01) and oral sex (from 25% to 80%; P < .01) were reported.


Diagnosis and treatment of OSCC are associated with significant declines in the frequency of vaginal and oral sex, regardless of tumor HPV status. Sexual behavior is an important quality-of-life outcome to assess within clinical trials. [See related editorial on pages 000-000, this issue.]

Diagnosis and treatment of oral squamous cell carcinomas are associated with significant declines in the frequency of several sexual behaviors, regardless of tumor human papillomavirus status. Health care providers should be aware of these changes, be prepared to discuss them, and include their assessment in quality-of-life outcomes in clinical trials.

See also pages 1092-4.

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