Wow, talk about an oral debate: Did outspoken actor Michael Douglas really say his throat cancer was caused by performing oral sex on a woman with a sexually transmitted disease?
And more important, is he right that it can?
Now that Douglas’ frank interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper has gone viral, cooler heads (translation: the actor’s appalled publicity people) have said he was just misunderstood, reports the Associated Press.
But maybe we should thank the actor for bringing up a squeamish subject. Because, yes, it’s true: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease that, if left untreated, can cause cancers of the cervix, anus, penis, vulva and vagina, as well as head and neck cancers, Time magazine reports.
The link between HPV and head and neck cancer “was really only accepted about five years ago,” Maura Gillison, M.D., a professor at Ohio State University who studies HPV infections in the head, throat and neck, told Time. “Before then, no one really cared about oral HPV infections.”
Statistics released last year from the American Cancer Society also showed that adults ages 55 to 64 had the highest increase in HPV-related oral cancers because of the increased practice of oral sex.
Douglas, now 68, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 after complaining of discomfort at the back of his throat. A doctor found a walnut-size tumor at the base of his tongue, and he was subsequently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He underwent eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation and has been cancer-free for a little more than two years.
The actor, who is married to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, told the Guardian that he didn’t think his cancer was due to the many years he “drank like a fish and smoked like the devil,” as reporter Xan Brooks put it.
“No,” Douglas answered. “No. Because, without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”
As it turns out, alcohol- and tobacco-related throat cancer has similar symptoms to the HPV-related version, but they are considered two separate diseases, Gillison told Time.
A 2011 study she and her colleagues conducted found that the proportion of oral cancers related to HPV jumped from 16 percent in the late 1980s to 72 percent in the early 2000s, particularly among middle-aged Caucasian men.
And although Douglas’ representatives may wish he hadn’t brought it up, there’s no question the problem of HPV-related cancers is growing. In an interview earlier this year with USA Today, the American Cancer Society’s Otis Brawley, M.D., called the growth of these cancers “one of the epidemics of the 21st century.”