Michael Douglas’ candid talk about the connection between cunnilingus and cancer has inadvertently brought about a higher awareness of HPV and reminded the world that dental dams and vaccinations are out there for a reason.
The internet was abuzz on Sunday after Michael Douglas, a Golden Globe—and Academy Award—winning actor who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010—was interviewed by The Guardian. The internet wasn’t interested in his role in Behind the Candelabra, his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, or even his views on acting as an outlet for bipolar disorder. No, they were interested in one word:
Almost immediately the word was trending on Twitter, and other news sources jumped on the single sentence, which was about the human papiloma virus (HPV) more than it was about oral sex.
When Xan Brooks asked if he thought his cancer was partially a result of overloading his system during his wild years pre-rehab. Douglas didn’t even hesitate.
A representative for Douglas says that the actor was not saying his cancer was from oral sex, and the actor himself said as much in a later statement: “I do not know what caused my cancer. If I did I’d have a Nobel Prize.” And for those, like USA Today, who are interested or concerned, no Catherine Zeta-Jones, married to Douglas for 13 years now, does not have HPV and is perfectly healthy.
Regardless of Douglas or Zeta-Jones’ health, the fact remains that cunnilingus, fellatio, and other oral sex acts are easy ways to contract HPV and put yourself at risk for cancer. The main risk factors for oral cancers are still alcohol and smoking, but up to 35-percent of throat cancers are related to HPV. And thanks to an internet population that loves the shock value of things like Douglas’ statement, awareness and safety information is being put in the spotlight.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “There are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect the genital areas of males and females. These HPV types can also infect the mouth and throat … All cases of genital warts and RRP [recurrent respiratory papillomatosis], and nearly all cases of cervical cancer, are caused by HPV. A subset of cancers of the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, and oropharynx, are caused by HPV.”
Dr. Marshall Posner, director of the head and neck oncology program at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, got technical and stated that the virus can be transmitted through something as simple as kissing:
[HPV] is present within the fluids that are part of oral sexual behavior. The vaginal fluids and semen will contain epithelial cells that have the virus on them and also free viral particles that can cause infection. [...] 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.
Though the virus can foster growth of pre-existing cancerous cells, having oral cancer and HPV does not necessarily mean that the virus caused the cancer.
Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Babeland, an online sex shop with retail locations in Seattle and New York, and Brian Hill, the executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation both agree that oral sex is considered a low-risk sexual activity by the populace, and HPV an even lower-risk STD when compared to AIDS since the chances of HPV becoming dangerous are so much lower.
Cavanah, along with Planned Parenthood, the federal government, and college health websites, all urge people to use dental dams during oral sex, and because they can be expensive, there are many different ways to make one on the fly and at almost no cost.
Like all sex, the level of risk from oral sex does not come from how often you engage in it but how many different people you engage in it with, as well as whether you use condoms or dental dams. Even using protection is not a perfect defense from HPV because of the nature of how it spreads.
“When it comes to spreading HPV, which doesn’t happen via a fluid transfer like AIDS, no matter what you put on, some part is exposed,” says Hill. “As an ultimate solution, dental dams are not the answer.”
“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.”
And it’s not just women who get cancer from HPV; when the vaccine for it was approved by the FDC in 2006, it was targeted for 12–13-year-old girls to prevent cervical cancer. Now, all children in that age range are encouraged to get the vaccination to prevent not just cervical but oral cancer.
So, thank you Michael Douglas, for oversharing and using the word ‘cunnilingus.’ By giving the world a little bit TMI, you’ve actually helped bring awareness back to a potentially lethal but often disregarded disease and reminded the internet that dental dams exist for a reason.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of the internet.
Featured Photo: David Shankbone/Flickr
Video: Leotron Tube/YouTube