Michael Douglas blames cancer on HPV: Can oral sex really cause cancer?

Michael Douglas battled back from stage four throat cancer — which he claims was caused by HPV.
Michael Douglas battled back from stage four throat cancer — which he claims was caused by HPV.

Michael Douglas, star of “Behind the Candelabra,” is a survivor of stage four throat cancer, and he has an unusual explanation for how he contracted it. He claims it comes from performing too much oral sex.

“Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus,” Douglas told the Guardian. Can this be true? Metro spoke to Dr. Julie Sharp, senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK, to find out.

What exactly is HPV?

It’s a virus that’s normally transferred through actual physical contact (skin-to-skin or sex). Although it is in most cases symptomless, it can cause things such as genital warts. HPV is very common. Eight out of 10 people will be infected with it at some point in their life even though in most cases, they won’t know anything about it.

How can HPV cause cancer?

There are hundreds of different types of HPV and around a dozen of them can increase the risk of cancer. They’re more associated with cervical and genital cancer but can be linked to certain types of mouth and throat cancer, through things such as oral sex. HPV infections most commonly occur to the fingers, hands, mouth and genitals, and can cause DNA damage in the cells. If it’s going to cause cancer it can be that you are exposed to a high-risk form of HPV just once; but obviously, the more sexual partners you have, the more you’re exposed to different types of HPV, increasing your risk of contracting one of the forms linked to cancer.

Michael Douglas has been married to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones for 12 years. Is it possible that he caught the HPV before their relationship began — some 15 to 20 years ago?

Yes. And that’s why these cancers are often diagnosed in older people, who might not even have been sexually active recently. So yes, it might have been a previous infection. Cancer doesn’t just develop overnight. You might have had an infection that led to a cell change and then over the years, those changes turned into cancer.

Would she have been at risk of getting the HPV from her husband?

I assume she would have been exposed to the virus at some point. It would depend on when he had it. The infection might have passed on by the time they got together, but the damage would have been done in terms of the cancer risk.

Douglas also claims that although cunnilingus was the reason he got cancer in the first place, it’s one of the best cures. Is this true?

I don’t know what he’s alluding to there. That doesn’t have any basis in science or research. I’m also not sure how he’s so certain that his cancer is linked to HPV. You can test for HPV, but I don’t know if you can see if someone had an infection in the past. It’s more likely that it was a combination of things. More than three-quarters of oral cancers in men and more than half in women are caused by smoking; alcohol also plays a big part. So they’re all risk factors.

So should people stop having oral sex if they want to reduce their risk of getting cancer?

With oral cancer, the main risk factors are still alcohol and smoking. There are hundreds of different HPV infections and only occasionally will someone be exposed to one that’s going to increase their risk of cancer. These cancers are very treatable and anything in the mouth and the throat, it’s easier to spot the symptoms. The main thing is for people to be aware and to get checked out if they’ve got things like ulcers, sores or white patches that don’t go away, difficulty with speech or swallowing and any kind of discomfort. Even dentists are trained to look for any unusual patches in the mouth.


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