Michael Douglas made the news this weekend for blaming his throat cancer on oral sex (likely embarrassing his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, in the process).
In an interview with The Guardian, the actor, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010, was asked whether he regrets his years of smoking and drinking. “No,” he said. “Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”
It may seem like a strange statement, but according to the Canadian Cancer Society, it’s certainly possible.
“HPV infection is associated with about 25 to 35 percent of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers,” their website states.
HPV also “causes almost all cervical cancers, but is also linked to cancer of the throat, oral cavity, penis, anus, vagina or vulva,” according to Health Canada.
But, Douglas is only partially right. While HPV is a risk factor for oral cancers, smoking and drinking are the main causes. “The risk of oral cancer is about 5 to 10 times greater among smokers compared to people who never smoked,” according to Health Canada. “This risk is further multiplied among smokers who also drink alcohol.
That’s probably why a representative for Douglas now says he doesn’t blame his cancer on oral sex, according to a CBC article published on June 3.
Still, it’s important to bring the issue of HPV to the public.
Health Canada says it’s estimated that 75 percent of sexually active men and women will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime.
Given that scary stat, it’s important to do what you can to prevent – and treat – HPV infections.
The obvious preventative options include quitting smoking and heavy drinking, using condoms and reducing the number of sexual partners you have.
It’s also important for women to get regular pap smears to test for HPV infection – especially given its strong link to cervical cancer.
In fact, your best protection against cervical cancer is to find out if you have HPV, so your doctor can treat abnormal cells before they potentially develop into cancer.
As for HPV in men, unfortunately there is no HPV test currently approved – though if you have any symptoms, such as genital warts, it’s important to see your doctor.
The good news?
“The body’s immune system usually gets rid of an HPV infection on its own,” according to the Canadian Cancer Society.