In a study that will likely change the way head and neck cancer patients are treated, doctors have made an important discovery into why black patients are more likely than white patients to die from the disease.

Researchers say people who have cancer of the tonsils, soft palate or tongue, and who also have HPV, are more likely to survive their cancer.

However African Americans in the study were much less likely to have an oral HPV infection, and were therefore 3 times less likely to beat their disease.

Survival for patients who were HPV-positive was almost 90 percent, while survival for HPV-negative patients was just 30 percent.

Doctors say they’re already checking their patients for HPV infections to see whether they should be more aggressive, or change the course of their treatment.

Researchers at University of Maryland led the study. The University’s Dr. Kevin Cullen remarked, “It’s a paradox really that HPV can lead to some [head and neck] cancers.”

HPV-positive tumors appear to be more sensitive to chemo and radiation than HPV-negative tumors. “Those cancers do extremely well, and they’re very responsive to chemotherapy and radiation,” said Dr. Cullen.

Doctors say the HPV vaccine is still important, that it can prevent a majority of HPV-related cancers, including head and neck cancer. However, they say the cancers that do develop will likely be harder to beat.