Nobody likes finding a wart. They’re bumpy, they get in the way, and they can be embarrassing and ugly. You might even find them on sensitive areas of your body like the genitals, which is never fun. These growths target the young and the old, the clean and the dirty, the rich and the poor. Normally, warts are benign and completely treatable. Most will even go away on their own eventually. When you’ve got one on your body, you can almost be sure it isn’t going to turn cancerous. But when it comes to genital warts, the situation is different.
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Can Warts Be Cancerous?
Cancer is when abnormal cells start to grow in an area of the body and replicate out of control. They can form very large tumors, or sometimes stay very small like in the case of skin cancer.
A normal wart won’t turn cancerous. The skin surrounding it, however, can develop cancer. Always make sure to look for the warning signs that would indicate irregular growth. Genital warts, however, aren’t like any other wart on the body. These can lead to cancer.
HPV, or Human Papilloma Virus, is the culprit behind cancerous warts. The type that causes genital warts is spread only through sexual contact and is highly contagious.
Some facts when it comes to HPV and cancer:
- There are millions of new cases of HPV a year.
- Most HPV infections don’t cause cancer, but the majority of genital cancers are caused by HPV.
- There are certain strains of HPV that are high risk for cancer.
- Genital warts can lead to cancer of the cervix, anus, penis, throat, and mouth.
If you’re surprised to find a wart on your skin, you’re not alone. Most people have no idea a wart will show up until one day it rapidly appears. More details on skin warts can be found here.
The Difference Between a Cancerous Wart and Skin Cancer
Skin cancer happens when your skin cells divide over and over again in a very abnormal way. If it doesn’t stop growing and is gone unchecked, the cancer can spread down to the lower tissue and bone, or even to other areas of the body. It is common to see skin cancer in areas regularly exposed to the sun.
Cancer from a wart is different in that it’s cause is strictly from HPV and nothing else. Cancerous warts will also be in the genital region or the mouth, while skin cancer will appear most often in areas exposed to sunlight.
It is estimated that millions of people have HPV but never develop symptoms. While scientist have found no cure for HPV, it’s possible that some people’s immune system can suppress the HPV enough to either not produce warts, or kill it off completely.
Signs and symptoms
Signs of skin cancer include:
- New or unusual growth in the skin.
- Scaly, rough, bumpy patches.
- A new bump that oozes or bleeds.
- Uneven coloration patches.
When in doubt, go to the doctor. When skin cancer is detected early, it is almost always curable.
When it comes to cancer caused by HPV, signs and symptoms can be different:
- Bleeding after sex.
- Unusual discharge or bleeding from the genitals or anus.
- Changes in color or texture of the genital skin.
- A sore in the mouth that won’t heal.
- A lump in your mouth or throat that doesn’t go away.
Don’t mistake a wart that’s infected for a wart that’s cancerous. It’s possible for bacteria to get inside or around the wart through tiny cuts or knicks and start an infection. For more information about infected warts, click here.
How To Prevent
There’s an easy way to avoid getting cancer from HPV. Because sexual contact is the primary way genital warts are transmitted from one person to the next, it is essential you avoid situations where you might come into direct contact with those infected.
- Safety: If you or your partner is infected with HPV, always use a condom. But remember, areas not covered by a condom can still spread HPV, so use extreme caution.
- Communication: If you have HPV, tell your partner. Before engaging in sexual activity with someone, find out their sexual health history. It’s always better to know ahead of time.
- Treatment: If you’ve got genital warts, make sure to get treatment for them. Warts removed quickly and efficiently are less likely to cause cancer.
- Vaccine: There is an immunization available to prevent an HPV infection. Gardasil can be given to boys and girls ages 9-26 and will stop you from getting the HPV that would lead to cancer.
Although no strain of HPV is a good thing, only certain types of it are considered “high risk”. Strains 16 and 18 cause roughly 70% of cervical cancers. Strains 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 are also considered more risky and can dramatically increase the chance that your genital warts will lead to cancer.
To prevent your wart from becoming cancerous, there’s several things you should try. The first is a preventative measure, to remove the genital wart before it ever turns cancerous.
You might find these options:
- Surgical excision: This procedure involves a doctor cutting the wart directly out of your skin. The area will be numbed first, and then a cutting tool will help remove the wart.
- Cryotherapy: Liquid nitrogen is used in this medical procedure, a substance held in a special canister at an extremely low temperature. So low, in fact, that it destroys living tissue on contact. Your doctor will carefully spray a stream of liquid nitrogen onto your genital wart until enough tissue is destroyed to produce complete wart death.
- Topical treatments: Creams like Imiquimod can be prescribed by a doctor and sometimes even applied by them directly onto your wart. They are highly corrosive and are able to kill a genital wart quickly.
So what happens if you find out the worst – that the HPV you’ve dealt with has in fact caused cancer.
Fortunately for you, cancer can be beaten:
- Surgical excision: Depending on the cancer’s location, your doctor could cut out the cancer and areas surrounding it. A pathologist would be present in the surgery to make sure all cancerous cells are removed.
- Hysterectomy: In cases of cervical cancer, a hysterectomy (whether partial or complete) is sometimes used as therapy. This is similar to excision, where the cancer is physically removed from your body.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the use of toxic drugs that circulate throughout your entire body, targeting rapidly-growing cells. Cancer grows quickly, but so do red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. This can cause side effects, but the good news is they are manageable.
- Radiation: This uses high energy particles or waves to kill cancer. For example, a machine may emit x-rays, gamma rays, or another type of energy at the tumor. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation is only focused on the cancer itself, and doesn’t circulate through the body.
So if you think your wart might be cancerous, see a doctor. This is the most important first step into making sure nothing is wrong. If you’ve got the dreaded news that cancer is involved, do some digging. Research treatments and go over options with your doctor to find out how you can make a swift and complete recovery. And if you can do anything, take care to prevent the HPV that gives people the warts in the first place.
You can find further details of Types of warts here.