His Fight Against HPV: Virus silently causes neck cancer in Ottawa Hills man several years after he was infected

TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - You've probably heard about HPV, the human papillomavirus. But did you know it's making men sick and even killing them?

While many are ashamed to talk about it, WTOL 11's special investigation found an Ottawa Hills man who didn't shy away, because he wants to save lives.

For 37-year-old John Smith, life was good. Family time was the best of times, like when he's playing a game of bingo with his wife Debbie and four children, Adam, Brody, Mason, and Gracie, making his life complete.

The future was limitless, until one day in 2016, as he stood in front of the mirror in his bathroom.

"I actually had a beard and I shaved and found a small lump and I kind of mentioned it to my wife and nothing really came of it," John said.

But the lump kept getting bigger and bigger.

"It went from a grape to a golf ball to a small orange in the course of three to six months," his wife Debbie said.

From the ER, John was then sent to the Hickman Cancer Center at ProMedica Flower Hospital, where biopsies confirmed he had squamous cell cancer of the head and neck. It was stage four.

When asked how he reacted when the doctor said cancer, John said, "Oh, it was horrible. It's the worst thing you could possibly hear, especially because I have a ten-year-old, an eight-year-old, five and four."

John thought the news was a death sentence. But the drama didn't end there.

Dr. Mohammad Mobayed, a ProMedica hematologist oncologist, told him the cancer was caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus.

"My wife's jaw kind of hit the floor," John said.

"I'm not gonna lie to you," Debbie said. "That 30 seconds of hearing that, I wanted to hit him, you know. I did."

"She thought right away, the association with it was that I was out cheating or not being faithful or whatever," John added.

Dr. Mobayed said about 80 percent of people in the U.S. get exposed to the human papillomavirus. And a University of Florida and Baylor College of Medicine study, published in October 2017, reveals nearly 11 million men and three million women in the U.S. are infected.

It also said that men were almost six times more likely to be infected with cancer-causing oral HPV strains than women were.

Dr. Mobayed said cancer-causing HPV is passed on through sexual activity and for throat-related HPV cancers, oral sex is usually the culprit.

John contracted HPV well before he even met his wife.

"You know the stigma with that coming off as people kind of interpret it as a sexually transmitted thing. But as my doctor said, it could have been there for 10 years," John said.

During that diagnosis, Dr. Mobayed had to reassure Debbie that her husband hadn't been unfaithful.

"He's the same person he was yesterday. This is something that happened ten years ago. So he's gonna need you. This is the worst, toughest cancer," Debbie recalled.

So the HPV in John's body had gone dormant for more than a decade, but in his mid-30s, it came alive.

"The majority of people clear the virus within two years. Some people cannot clear that virus and over time, the virus cycle in the body can turn into a cancerous process," said Dr. Mobayed.

"There's a lot of men I'm sure that have had a similar life that I've had and you grow up and you get settled down and all of a sudden, boom, this hits you," John added.

"It's silent because you don't know if you get it, when you get it. You don't know when you're clear of it, you don't know if you gave it to somebody," said Dr. Mobayed.

John struggled through intense treatment, which included enduring radiation every day for five days a week. He also had chemotherapy once a week for three months.

"Say ah. Ah." John Smith allowed us to sit in on one of his checkups.

And two years later, he's in remission, on the road to being cancer free. Dr. Mobayed said John is doing great but he has a warning for men in their 30s and 40s"

"Unfortunately, there is no way to screen for this but follow symptoms. A sore throat or some other complaint in the mouth, that has been lingering for more than two weeks, you really should get checked out by a professional," he said.

And John wanted to warn even younger men to practice safe sex.

"There are always repercussions for your actions. So think about what you're doing," Smith said.

Dr. Mobayed said any man worried about possible symptoms of HPV-related cancer should first see their family doctor, dentist, or ENT.

As for the controversial HPV vaccine, the CDC recommends girls and boys should get the vaccine beginning at age 11 or 12.

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