In 2010, actor Michael Douglas stunned fans worldwide when he revealed that he had stage 4 throat cancer, a condition that he at the time attributed to a combination of alcohol, tobacco and stress, but just recently he revealed that the disease — which has since gone into remission — was in fact caused by him performing cunnilingus. That claim might strike some people as ridiculous, but in fact human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that Douglas stated led to his cancer, is in fact sexually transmitted via oral, vaginal or anal sex.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, with nearly every sexually active person getting it at some point in their lives. There are more than 150 types of HPV, over 40 of which are spread through skin-to-skin contact of the genitals, mouth and throat. Usually, HPV vanishes before people even realize they have it, but some types cause genital warts, and others can cause cancer. Specifically, types 6 and 11 of HPV cause 90% of all genital warts, while types 16 and 18 cause most HPV-linked cancers. HPV causes about 5% of all cancer worldwide, including nearly all cervical cancers, about 85% of anal cancers and about half of all vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers.
It’s only been relatively recently that HPV has been tied to throat cancer, but now more than half of cases of cancer of the oropharynx (the part of the throat that includes the base of the tongue and tonsils) are thought to be caused by HPV type 16. The occurrence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer has been increasing over the past two decades, especially among men, and it’s estimated that by 2020, HPV will cause more cancer of the oropharynx than of the cervix in the US.
Although in most instances, the cancer-causing types of HPV don’t actually lead to cancer, there are a number of factors that increase the risk of developing cancer following HPV infection, including: smoking, a weakened immune system and chronic inflammation. Giving birth frequently and long-term use of oral contraception also increase the risk of cervical cancer, while poor oral hygiene increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancer. It’s quite possible that smoking in particular contributed to Michael Douglas’ cancer diagnosis.
There are currently two FDA-approved HPV vaccines on the market: Gardasil and Cervarix. Between the two of them, they have proven effective in preventing infections with HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18, but neither have been approved for prevention of penile or oropharyngeal cancer. The best prevention, of course, is abstinence, but in the likely case that’s not viable, monogamy and use of condoms to minimize skin-on-skin sexual contact can help reduce the risk of HPV infection. Just ask Michael Douglas.
(Sources: Star Pulse, The Guardian, CDC, National Cancer Institute)