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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar (right) welcomes Michael Caputo to the HHS.

Michael Caputo, a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services, announced he has head and neck cancer.

After undergoing surgery, doctors diagnosed Caputo with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, which originated in his throat.

Caitlin McMullen, MD, head and neck surgeon

Caitlin McMullen, MD, head and neck surgeon

“Metastatic could mean spread to lymph nodes in the neck or spread outside of the head and neck to other sites such as bones or the lungs,” said Dr. Caitlin McMullen, a head and neck surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center. “Lymph node spread in the head and neck is still considered to be curable, and in fact, for HPV-related throat cancers, the cure rate is extremely high. If the cancer has metastasized outside of the head and neck to distant sites, cure is unlikely.”

It is unclear if Caputo’s cancer is HPV-related and where it has spread. He has taken a two-month medical leave and is deciding next steps for his care and recovery.

McMullen says there are many treatment options available. For cases with distant metastatic spread, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and other targeted drugs can be used. Patients can also pursue a number of additional options under clinical trials such as cellular therapies like tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte (TIL) therapy.

In a statement, Caputo said he initially thought he was losing weight for months from a new exercise and diet regimen. “Instead of taking the time to see my doctor, I failed to do so,” he said. He added the pandemic played a role in neglecting to seek care.

“It is important not to ignore swollen lymph nodes, throat pain, hoarseness, ear pain and trouble swallowing that lasts more than two weeks,” said McMullen. “Maintaining your health in all aspects is critical, especially during a pandemic.”