May 30, 2023 – The human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to different types of cancer. Almost all cervical cancer, for example, is caused by HPV. New research now seeks to get a clear picture of how HPV might play a role in the development of another form of the disease – breast cancer.
According to a recent study from Mexico, HPV has been found in breast cancer tissue, and in both malignant tumors and non-malignant breast disease. Out of 116 breast tissue samples the researchers looked at, 20% of cancerous samples contained HPV, as did 35% of non-cancerous samples. Also, 27% of breast cancer biopsies studied contained HPV. While they did not find that HPV has been established as a direct cause of all breast cancer, the researchers think the persistent presence of HPV in mammary glands may start a process that makes normal cells become abnormal, and then cancerous.
More new research finds that HPV may affect a specific immunity data receptor – known as Toll-like receptor 9 – found in different cancers. In triple-negative breast cancer, low levels of this receptor can mean a poor outcome for a patient. This study found that the effect of HPV on the receptor could influence outlook and treatment for breast cancer patients, although the study was small, and its authors stress that more research is needed.
The need to find a clear connection between HPV and breast cancer is very important.
“Looking at the literature, there is a lot of conflicting data about the role of HPV in breast cancer,” said Ann H. Klopp, MD, PhD, a professor of radiology oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and co-leader of its HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot. “It’s really not well-established. This is very different from cervical, head and neck, anal, vaginal, and vulvar cancers where HPV is very clearly associated with developing those cancers.”
Let’s take a closer look at what our current understanding of a potential link between HPV and breast cancer could mean, and how to best protect yourself from both conditions.
What Are the Symptoms of HPV?
Your immune system may stop an HPV infection before it ever displays symptoms. If not, you will notice warts on your skin. There are four kinds of warts that indicate HPV:
- Genital warts, which can look like flat lesions, can be cauliflower-shaped, or can appear to have stems. These can also appear on or near your anus.
- Common warts, which appear as raised, rough bumps on your hands and fingers
- Plantar warts – hard growths that appear on your feet
- Flat warts, which can look slightly raised and can show up anywhere on your body.
What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
According to the CDC, different people can show different symptoms of the disease. If you have HPV, this will not impact the type of symptoms you might have if you do have breast cancer.
Watch for these signs:
- A new lump in your breast or your armpit
- Swelling in your breasts, or dimpling of the skin
- Irritation or red, flaking skin on your breasts or your nipple area
- Any blood coming from your nipple, or any discharge or liquid that’s not breast milk
- Your nipple pulling inward, or your breast changing shape or size
- Pain in your breasts or nipples
How Does HPV Cause Cancer?
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is actually a group of over 200 viruses that is spread by sexual contact. Almost everyone who is sexually active becomes infected with HPV, and 50% of those people have cases of HPV that are considered “high-risk” – meaning they could lead to cancer. If you have HPV in your body for many years, it could lead some cells in your body to change, causing malignancies. Besides cervical cancer, oral cancer, throat cancer, vulvar cancer, penile cancer, and vaginal cancer have all been previously established as being related to HPV.
In the case of breast cancer, two high-risk strains of HPV in breast cancer samples have been detected. It’s thought that HPV is transmitted to breast cells through skin-to-skin touch through the hands, or through the mouth during sexual contact.
This is thought to be likely because milk ducts in the breast are open, and therefore could most easily be the point of entry for HPV.
Can the HPV Vaccine Protect Against Breast Cancer?
Some research has shown that the vaccine could be a useful preventive tool in the future.
“HPV prevalence in breast cancer as seen in our study indicates that HPV vaccination could protect women from breast cancer, along with cervical cancer and other HPV associated cancers,” said Chinmay Kumar Panda, PhD, a senior scientist and senior assistant director in the Department of Oncogene Regulation at Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in West Bengal, India.
Again, more research is needed on this, as well as research that could determine if giving the HPV vaccine after a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer could be helpful.
“I think there’s no evidence for that at this time,” Klopp said. “Absolutely, though, the HPV vaccine prevents people from getting all HPV-related cancers across the board, including cervical, head and neck, anal, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.”
The HPV vaccine is mostly recommended for everyone through age 26. If you are at risk for a new HPV infection, you can receive the vaccine through age 45. Condoms are also an important tool in preventing new HPV infections.
Should I Get Screened for Breast Cancer if I Have HPV?
At this time, HPV is not a risk factor as outlined in the American Cancer Society’s screening guidelines. But you should get regular mammograms. Clinical exams and self-exams can also be helpful – ask your doctor about what forms of early detection are right for you.
The bottom line: There’s a lot more to learn about the potential connection between HPV and breast cancer. Focusing on lowering your risk for HPV, along with monitoring your breast health, is your best strategy, now and in the future.