The Guardian newspaper published an interview with Michael Douglas on Sunday, in which the 68-year-old actor said his throat cancer hadn’t been caused by drinking or smoking – but by having oral sex.
“Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is
caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus,” Douglas
told the British newspaper. Douglas also went on to speculate that the
stress of his son Cameron’s incarceration might have helped trigger the
cancer as well.
While a representative for Douglas maintains the actor did not
specifically say oral sex was the cause of his cancer, the conversation
still begs the question: Does having oral sex play a role in the
development of oral cancer?
While a connection between the two may seem bizarre, it is very
possible that some oral cancers are the end result of intimate sexual
Rates of oral cancer – sometimes referred to as head and neck cancers
– have been on the rise over the past decade. While the main risk
factors for oral cancers typically include drinking alcohol and smoking,
around 25 percent of mouth and 35 percent of throat cancers are related
to human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.
“(HPV) is present within the fluids that are part of oral sexual
behavior,” Dr. Marshall Posner, director of the head and neck oncology
program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, told FoxNews.com. “The
vaginal fluids and semen will contain epithelial cells that have the
virus on them and also free viral particles that can cause infection.”
HPV cannot be transmitted through blood contact, but Posner said it
may be possible to contract the virus from the direct contact of fluids
through kissing. This can occur if an individual kisses someone who
previously performed oral sex on someone else who had the virus.
“If the virus is present in the oral pharynx and if it gets secreted
in the saliva, then the saliva will contain potentially dangerous viral
particles,” Posner said.
There are more than 100 different types of HPV, and nearly everyone
contracts some form of the virus in their youth. Fortunately, the
majority of HPV strains do not cause any symptoms, and in 90 percent of
cases, the infection is naturally eradicated from the body within two
However, some HPV types can cause genital warts, while others may
lead to certain cancers in rare cases. HPV 16 and HPV 18 – which are
sexually transmitted – are most closely associated with HPV-positive
According to Posner, 3 percent of adult males and 1 percent of adult
females will have detectable HPV 16 in their saliva at any given moment
in time. However, just because HPV is detected in a sample of someone
with oral cancer does not necessarily mean HPV caused the cancer.
According to the National Health Service in Britain, the virus becomes
part of the pre-existing cancer cells’ genetic material, fostering the
cells to grow.
Oropharyngeal cancer symptoms include a lump in the back of the
throat or mouth, pain in the ear or back of tongue, and difficulty
swallowing. While the prognosis for HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer is
around 40 to 50 percent, the survival outcomes are generally better for
HPV-positive cancers, ranging from 80 to 95 percent. However, that
prognosis is affected by drinking and smoking, which may have been a
problem for Douglas.
In the United States, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer represents 60
percent of the total number of orapharyngeal cancer cases, which equal
to about 15,000 per year. Posner estimated that those cases will
increase to 20,000 a year by the year 2015.
While researchers cannot fully explain the rising rates of these
cancers, one of the biggest risk factor for contracting HPV-positive
oroharyngeal cancer includes having a high number of sexual partners,
“In smoking cigarettes and cancer, it doesn’t matter what brands you
smoked, it matters how many you smoked,” Posner said. “With HPV, it’s
about the number of ‘brands’ you’ve been involved with. If you have
numerous partners, you have a much higher risk of developing cancer. So
(monogamous) people should go ahead and have the same intimate and
personal relationship that they have with their partners and not be
worried about it.”
For those looking to protect themselves from contracting dangerous
forms of HPV, practicing safe sex by using protection such as condoms
and dental dams may help to diminish the spread of sexually transmitted
diseases. Posner also called for parents to get their children –
including young boys –vaccinated against HPV.
“I think people should make every effort to have children vaccinated,
so I don’t have to treat this in the future,” Posner said. I think
it’s very important and to cure cancer we have to support research –
it’s the best way we have to figure out how to cure this.