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Were Michael Douglas' Comments About HPV Helpful?

By Gary Bell

June 18, 2013

Michael Douglas

Megastar actor/director Michael Douglas recently caused a stir when he implied that his stage 4 throat cancer was caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which he believe he contracted through oral sex. He went on to say that cunnilingus was also the "best cure for it." As I have written previously, one tract of HPV (HPV16) is known to be linked to oral cancer, manifesting itself in the back regions of the throat and mouth.

HPV, the sexually transmitted virus best known as a cause of genital warts as well as being linked to cervical and anal malignancies, is thought to be responsible for an increasing proportion of oral(oropharyngeal) cancers, including throat cancer. However, lifestyle may present even greater risk factors and Mr. Douglas' tobacco habit, coupled with, at times, excessive alcohol consumption appear to be the most likely culprits. In 1992, he was hospitalized for an addiction which some at the time claimed to be sex.

Douglas himself denied this and said he was in rehab for alcohol abuse. He has also spoken of recreational drug use. Many believe that the rise in HPV related cancers may be the result of a change in sexual behavior, especially an increase in oral sex. Oral sex may seem for many to be a safer alternative to penetrative sex, which are known to result in a host of sexually transmitted infections (STI'S) , including HIV. Most people seemed surprised to learn that STI'S such as Gonorrhea and Syphilis, not to mention HPV, may be transmitted through oral sex. A physician once said to me that the throat is an almost perfect breeding ground for infection. To his credit, Mr Douglas later backtracked and acknowledged that his cancer may not have been caused by HPV-he was just sharing how oral sex may lead to throat cancer.

However, were his comments helpful in raising awareness in the public about HPV? Certainly his assertion that more oral sex can help cure it was not. My fear is that many people do not take the time to read or even listen to the whole story and are more likely to get the gist of it from headlines and sound bites. Nonetheless, even if he had to pull his foot from his mouth (no pun intended), I am grateful to him for having the courage to bring to light an important issue. Now it is up to the rest of us to make sure that we provide the accurate information to the public.

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