After comments published Sunday by the Guardian quoted Michael Douglas as saying his throat cancer was likely caused by oral sex, the Internet collectively expressed skepticism.
Turns out the 68-year-old actor is right — and we're all in need of some good education on the dangers of HPV, the human papillomavirus — even if there is some confusion about what he actually said.
Douglas, who was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer in 2010, initially blamed the disease on years of smoking and drinking. When asked, however, in the interview whether he regretted that lifestyle, the "Behind the Candelabra" star had a simple response. "No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus."
"I did worry if the stress caused by my son's incarceration didn't help trigger it," he continued. "But yeah, it's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it."
"Michael Douglas did not say cunnilingus was the cause of his cancer," he told USA TODAY. "It was discussed that oral sex is a suspected cause of certain oral cancers as doctors in the article point out, but he did not say it was the specific cause of his personal cancer."
Backing up a bit, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, according to the National Cancer Institute. It can cause cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva, anus, penis and head and neck — as well as genital warts. In an interview with USA TODAY, Lori Wirth, director of head and neck oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that HPV now accounts for more cases of head and neck cancers than smoking.
Sexual contact and oral sex are the common means of transmitting HPV, while the likelihood of contracting oral HPV is directly associated with the number of sexual partners. Fortunately, these types of cancers are much more curable and can be treated more successfully than those associated with smoking and drinking.
In the Guardian story, at least one doctor expressed caution in blaming Douglas's throat cancer purely on cunnilingus, adding that he has no idea why the actor would say more oral sex would cure his condition. "Maybe he thinks that more exposure to the virus will boost his immune system," Mahesh Kumar, a consultant head and neck surgeon in London, told the site. "But medically, that just doesn't make sense."
Whatever Douglas said, it has sparked an important conversation and brought awareness to a growing health problem. To learn more about the symptoms and treatments for HPV, visit the official Center for Disease Control and Prevention page on the topic.