Actor Michael Douglas was in the media earlier this year when he suggested his throat cancer had been caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV): When asked if he regretted years of smoking and drinking, Douglas told U.K. newspaper The Guardian, ‘No. Because, without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus.’ His spokesperson, Allen Burry, later said Douglas was only discussing possible causes of oral cancer and not the cause of his cancer.
Douglas’s speculation could be right. Throat cancer’traditionally associated with heavy tobacco and alcohol use’is increasingly being seen as related to HPV. It has long been known that HPV, which can be transmitted through sex, causes genital warts and certain cancers. In research published in the June 2013 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that an estimated 35 percent of cancers of the oropharynx (middle part of the throat) are HPV-related. Researchers followed more than 500,000 people, and of the 135 who developed oropharyngeal cancer, one third had HPV16 E6 antibodies as early as 12 years before disease onset.
Not all patients with the HPV16 antibodies went on to develop cancer. Still, the WHO findings could lead to screening tools for early detection of HPV antibodies. Ideally, this means doctors could treat those who are at highest risk, many years before the onset of the disease.