The HPV virus is so common that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives, unless they are protected by vaccination.
The HPV virus can lead to cancer in both men and women. That's why those who have gotten cancer caused by HPV are trying to get the word out to parents to get their children vaccinated.
"Anytime you can fish is a good time,” Ward said.
Fishing is Scott Ward's way of relaxing. He didn't have any risk factors that he knew of for cancer so he ignored the lump on his neck until he couldn't ignore it anymore.
Dr. Donald Doll, an oncologist at the University of Missouri Health Care, treated Ward for his cancer.
"We're seeing more and more younger and healthier patients,” Doll said. “They're not smokers or drinkers. It's HPV-related."
Smoking and drinking can cause oral cancers. But Ward's cancer was caused by HPV, the human papilloma virus.
"Normally, you think HPV, you think of women — cervical cancer,” Doll said.
HPV does cause cervical cancer, but Doll says it's a misconception that only women have to be concerned with cancers caused by this virus.
"The big ones are cervical cancer and the oropharyngeal cancer,” Doll said.
Oropharyngeal cancers affect the head and neck, including tonsils. Ward's cancer started in a tonsil. HPV can also lead to anal cancer in both sexes and penile cancer in men.
But there's a vaccine that's been around for more than a decade that can protect against the HPV virus. If all boys and girls received it, no one would get HPV-related cancers.
The HPV vaccine is best when given to children between 9 and 12 years old, before they are sexually active. But teenagers and young adults can still benefit from the vaccine.
Not everyone who gets the HPV virus develops cancer. But it is a risk factor. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that 70 percent of cases of head and neck cancers are caused by HPV. The agency says about 14 million people in the U.S. alone become infected with HPV each year. Yet, about half of all U.S. adolescents have not been vaccinated, which requires a series of three shots.
The CDC says the side effects are generally short term and not serious. They can include dizziness, headache, nausea, fever, and pain and swelling in the arm where the shot was given.
Ward's recovery was difficult. He had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But he's now cancer-free.
"It's a journey. I made it through,” Ward said.
Ward wishes the HPV vaccine existed when he was a teen. He says if he had kids, he would get them vaccinated.
"I tell people that do have kids ... it's a prevention. Get it."
Head and neck cancers are the sixth most common cancers worldwide. The HPV virus also causes half a million cases of cervical cancer each year.