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Examining the connection between HPV and throat cancer

Category: Sexually Transmitted Diseases

All sexually active individuals should protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases by practicing safe sex and utilizing STD testing services, since not even the rich and famous can avoid the consequences of these infections once they contract one. For example, actor Michael Douglas recently battled throat cancer, and he has been quoted by news sources as saying that he believes he developed the disease after contracting the human papillomavirus.

The "Behind the Candelabra" star told the British newspaper The Guardian that he does not believe that his throat cancer was caused by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, but rather the HPV he contracted was through performing oral sex.

"Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus," said Douglas, quoted by the newspaper. "I did worry if the stress caused by my son's incarceration didn't help trigger it. But yeah, it's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer."

After this article was published, representatives for the actor claimed that he had been misquoted, and that he hadn't in fact said that cunnilingus was the cause of his throat cancer, but that oral sex is a suspected cause of certain types of cancers, according to CBS News.

Is it true?
After Douglas' interview was published, the medical community was flooded with questions regarding whether HPV could lead to throat cancer. In short, the answer is yes. CBS spoke to Eric Genden, M.D., professor and chair of otolaryngology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, who said that there is an "epidemic" of HPV-related throat cancer cases in the U.S., and it's important for people to know that oral sex poses its own dangers.

Just how prevalent is this issue? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that studies have shown that HPV may be responsible for as much as 60 to 80 percent of cancers of the upper throat.

The Dispatch recommended that people who have a partner with HPV should abstain from oral sex to keep themselves safe. However, there is a high chance that they are already infected if they have engaged in unprotected sexual activity.

Almost all sexually active individuals contract HPV at some point during their lives. However, in the majority of HPV infections clear up on their own eventually. Regardless, HPV still poses a serious risk to some individuals.

Although Douglas allegedly said that he does not regret his history of smoking and alcohol use because HPV may have been the cause of his cancer, it's important to note that this doesn't mean that people shouldn't be concerned about developing cancer if they smoke or drink heavily. CBS News spoke to Mumtaz Khan, M.D., a head and neck cancer surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who said that HPV-related throat cancers tend to have a high cure rate.

"The good thing is the HPV-related tumors prognostically are far better than those related to smoking and alcohol," Khan told CBS.

What can you do?
People who are concerned about contracting HPV or any other STD can drastically reduce their chances if they use condoms during all sexual activity. Furthermore, they should regularly use STD testing services to help prevent spreading an infection on to others if they have already contracted one. The sooner an STD is treated, the better, since if left unattended, they can lead to infertility, cancer and even death.

Along with throat cancer, HPV has been associated with cervical, anal and penile cancer, which is why people need to do everything they can to protect themselves against this common STD.

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