HPV and throat cancer come to light via Michael Douglas. Credits: businessweek.com.
HPV and throat cancer come to light via Michael Douglas. Credits: businessweek.com.

So Michael Douglas got throat cancer from performing oral sex. Or not. Or maybe. It's debateable right now. The first report revealed that his battle with throat cancer nearly three years ago spurred from possible exposure to human papilloma virus (HPV). He stated in an interview with the Guardian that oral sex caused throat cancer. More recent reports claim that the 68 year-old actor did not say that oral sex caused his cancer specifically but was a potential cause of it. Semantics aside, the mere mention of HPV, cancer, and a famous movie star in the same sentence causesthe media circuit to light up and presents a time for a teachable moment. Now before everyone freaks out and temporarily swears off oral sex, let's examine what HPV is and how it relates to throat cancer.

What Is HPV Anyway?

The basic facts about human papilloma virus according to the Center for Disease Control are

  • It is transmitted through sex.
  • It is the most common transmitted sexual infections.
  • There are currently approximately 79 million people who are infected with HPV and 14 million new infections occur every year.
  • Most people do not develop symptoms from HPV infection and the human body will clear itself of it within two years.
  • Depending on which type of HPV you contract (yes there is more than one type) it can possibly cause genital warts, cervical cancer, or other types of cancer including oropharyngeal (throat) cancer.
  • There is a vaccine for HPV and it is recommended for girls and boys ages 11-12 and gay or bisexual men.

Is Throat Cancer Deadly?

I'm sure most people hear the words cancer and freaked out because they believe it automatically leads to death. I suspected that any form of cancer that is left untreated can be deadly. I "live chatted" with a specialist from the American Cancer Society to confirm my suspicion. The specialist said, "Yes, oral and oropharyngeal cancer can be deadly especially in the later stages. The later the stage the poorer the prognosis." However, if detected early, it can be treated (Mr. Douglas is living proof of that).

So Now What?

There area few lessons to be learned from this hot topic.

  1. See your gynecologist regularly. There's just no avoiding the doctor, especially if you are sexually active. Just like with HIV the more you know, the better. Women can get tested for HPV during their cervical cancer screening. There are no male specific tests for HPV. Cervical cancer screenings and HPV DNA tests are covered under the Affordable Care Act.
  2. Practice safe sex. Condoms and dental dams work when used properly so make them a regular part of your sexual routine. HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom so they do not fully protect you but it's better to be safe than sorry.
  3. Do not ignore warning signs. Men are famous for brushing off symptoms as something benign that they can handle on their own. If you have symptoms that won't go away, see your doctor.
  4. Be careful who you perform oral sex on (for men and women). I won't turn this into a lecture about monogamy. And I'm not saying abandon oral sex altogether (let's not destroy all the fun) but be selective. Talk to your partner about his or her sexual history. If you're not comfortable with what you hear or don't hear, wait awhile before engaging in any sexual activity if at all.

If you think you have been exposed to a Sexually Transmitted Infection of any kind, there is help for you in the District. Visit the Southeast Clinic on the campus of DC General Hospital on Massachusetts Avenue. Click here for more information.