Michael Douglas is right -- it really is possible to get throat cancer from oral sex. But the star of “Behind the Candelabra” and “Wall Street” went a bit off-base when he suggested (hopefully jokingly) that the cause of his throat cancer could also be the cure.
The actor told The Guardian on Sunday that his recently publicized bout of throat cancer, which some speculated was a consequence of drinking and smoking, was actually the result of a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection he contracted from cunnilingus.
“I did worry if the stress caused by my son's incarceration didn't help trigger it,” Douglas said. “But yeah, it's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. … And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it."
While oral sex might cheer you up after finding out you have throat cancer, if you go see your doctor, he’ll probably steer you toward other, more medically sound options, for treatment. (And if he does recommend oral sex as a treatment option, you should probably seek a second opinion.)
Radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy are all viable treatments for oral and throat cancer. There’s also a drug called Cetuximab (sold under the name Erbitux) that turns off the molecular signals that lead to uncontrolled cell division, which is a common strategy that certain cancers use to grow exponentially. What course a patient’s treatment takes will depend on how advanced the condition is, as well as certain unique characteristics of the cancer itself.
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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year about 9,356 men and 2,370 women get HPV-related cancers of the mouth and throat. The rate of non-HPV related cancer is actually declining, possibly thanks to the fact that people aren’t smoking or drinking as heavily anymore. But HPV-related cancer is rapidly rising among younger age groups, and men especially, thanks possibly to a shift in another kind of behavior.
“Rising HPV-related cancers among white men may reflect changing sexual practices,” researchers from the non-profit RTI International wrote in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Oncology.
The increase in HPV-related cancers among men has spurred calls to more widely recommend HPV vaccines for both boys and girls. Gardasil, initially limited to just women, was shown to be effective at preventing HPV transmission in boys and men in a trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011. HPV vaccines are most effective when given before a person starts engaging in sexual activity, so the CDC currently recommends that boys and girls get the shot at age 11 or 12. The agency also recommends the shot for men who have sex with men, and both men and women with compromised immune systems.
Throat cancer can strike any part of the throat – behind the nose, behind the mouth, even in the vocal cords or voice box. And avoiding oral sex is no sure guarantee of remaining cancer-free.
Aside from HPV, tobacco use and excessive alcohol drinking – more than one drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men -- can place a person at risk for throat cancer. Diet seems to play a role too. Certain fruits and vegetables – leafy greens, broccoli, garlic and onions – probably contain compounds that protect against certain kinds of cancers, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
So, if you’re looking to stay throat cancer-free, you’ll probably want to eat your veggies, cut down on the cigarettes, and try and remember that dental dam demonstration from freshman orientation.