Actor Michael Douglas, who beat throat cancer two years ago, said in an interview published Sunday that his oral cancer was not caused by smoking and alcohol but from human papilloma virus that he acquired through oral sex.
Yes, the human papilloma virus — known as HPV for short – can cause throat cancer. And yes, HPV can be acquired from oral sex. However, the major risk factors for all head and neck cancers are smoking, smokeless tobacco, betel nut chewing and alcohol intake.
Those with cancers specific to the oral cavity and throat are affected by these risk factors as well. So, for Douglas to pinpoint oral sex alone as the main culprit sends the wrong message — especially when he admits to smoking and drinking alcohol.
Most sexually active adults are exposed to HPV. But, in the majority of cases, the body fights the virus and it goes away. The fact is, approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, yet most do not develop cancer.
However, lifestyle choices such as cigarette smoking and alcohol intake increase the chances that the virus will cause cells to grow abnormally.
It is unclear if Douglas’ throat cancer was even HPV-positive. But today, he is retracting his initial statements that oral sex caused his cancer.
With so many infected with HPV, it can be difficult to avoid being exposed to it. However, using condoms, even during oral sex; avoiding cigarette smoking and alcohol; and (of course) abstinence decreases your risk of acquiring HPV and ultimately developing cervical, anal, oral or throat cancers.
It is not yet proven whether the HPV vaccines, Cervarix and Gardasil, could help prevent HPV-positive oral cancers the way they prevents cervical cancer. It’s now recommended for both boys and girls, preferably before they have sexual intercourse. This recommendation makes sense, as men obviously spread the virus, and with respect to oral cancers, men are affected three times more often than women.
Fortunately, Douglas realized the error in his initial statements – including stating that oral sex could actually “cure” HPV-positive oral and throat cancers. But, it’s not all bad. People are now talking about HPV and hopefully his statements have shed an important light on sexually-transmitted cancers that are actually preventable.
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for NBC’s theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.