Now let’s be clear. Michael Douglas is not a doctor, nor does he play one on TV. But when he recently blamed his bout with throat cancer on having contracted Human Papillomavirus (HPV) from performing oral sex, he may have been on to something. In fact, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, HPV may be causing more cases of throat and oral cancers than tobacco.
It’s hard to hear Douglas talk about performing cunnilingus and not immediately think of his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of the most beautiful women on the planet. And one has to wonder what she thinks of her husband’s comments.
But once we get past the fantasies, it’s important to recognize that Douglas is doing a great service by increasing awareness of HPV and, by extension, of the importance of the HPV vaccine—especially for boys.
HPV is the most commonly sexually transmitted disease in the US. And at least half of sexually active people will get some kind of HPV-related infection at some point in their life. HPV is a major cause of genital warts as well as cervical, anal, and other cancers. In addition, researchers are investigating whether there’s a connection between HPV infection and heart disease. In one small study, women 20-59 who had tested positive for HPV were twice as likely to have had a stroke or heart attack as those who were HPV-free.
For years, the HPV vaccine was given only to girls, but it wasn’t until late 2011 that the CDC first recommended that boys be vaccinated too—and that was a huge step forward. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2010 there were more than 12,500 cases of oral cancer diagnosed in the US. Half were in men—and 75% of those were caused by HPV. Overall, oral cancers are twice as common in men as women, but HPV-related cancer are 6-7 times more common in men than women (see the infographic from Mount Sinai Hospital).
If you have a child aged 9 or older, talk with your pediatrician about having him or her vaccinated for HPV. You may also want to talk with your own healthcare provider about whether the vaccine is right for you.
URL for the infographic: http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/ent/areas-of-care/head-and-neck-cancer/oral-cancer/hpv/infographics/hpv-oral-sex-cancer