A very candid Michael Douglas has called attention to one of the little-talked-about causes of throat cancer.
In an interview with The Guardian, the Oscar-winning actor blamed an STD–transmitted via oral sex, he said–for his life-threatening condition.
When asked about his years of smoking and drinking, often considered contributing factors to the disease, Douglas replied: “No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by something called HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus.” The 68-year-old added, “But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer.”
The actor’s rep Allen Burry later downplayed the comments, suggesting Douglas was simply talking about the cause of oral cancers in general, not his own cancer specifically. “In a discussion with the newspaper, they talked about the causes of oral cancer, one of which was oral sex, which is noted and has been known for a while now,” he told the AP.
In 2010, Douglas underwent eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, which is often terminal. He’s been cancer-free for two years and is currently starring as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra.”
Dr. Hilda Hucherson, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate dean at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, applauds Douglas for bringing awareness to the connection between HPV (human papillomavirus) and throat cancer.
“Michael Douglas is my hero,” said Hucherson on msnbc’s The Last Word. “To stand before the world and say, ‘I have cancer and it’s caused by a virus that’s transmitted though oral sex’… It’s educating America and the world about the fact that this virus–that most of us are going to get in our lifetimes–can cause throat cancer.”
HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus most often associated with types of cervical cancer in women and genital warts, but it can also cause throat cancer in some cases. While doctors can track strains of HPV in women through the help of pap tests, it’s difficult to detect HPV in men because there’s no test.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is responsible for 63% of the estimated 11,726 cases of oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed every year. In 2011, research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology suggested HPV-linked throat cancer may be on the rise.
Hucherson called it “shocking because young people still think that oral sex is safe sex, and that you can’t get something as serious as a cancer from oral sex.” The doctor said, however, that the public doesn’t need to be “overly-fearful” because it’s still a relatively low risk. Hucherson recommended using condoms and dental dams as a preventative measure, as well as the vaccine, if possible.
While the HPV vaccine is marketed primarily as a way to protect against cervical cancer among females, the CDC now recommends both girls and boys receive the vaccine. It’s been a controversial topic among parents: 50% of girls get the vaccine, but only 2% of boys are vaccinated in the United States for the HPV virus.
HPV is rampant in this country: approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and 14 million contract new infections of the STD yearly, health officials said.