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Dear Michael Douglas, are you sure it was cunnilingus and not cigarettes?

by Apoorva Dutt  Jun 3, 2013 18:25 IST

#Hollywood   #JustSaying   #Michael Douglas   #Sex  

An actor divulging intimate details within striking distance of his or her movie release, album release, or any other endeavour that needs publicity is nothing new. But now, Michael Douglas’s reveal has upped the ante.

Douglas shared, and some might say over-shared, with the readers of the Guardian that it was cunnilingus, oral sex performed on a woman, which resulted in his contraction of throat cancer. The actor’s reveal resulted in disbelief, disgust and slight worry – does oral sex really cause cancer?

A week after the limited release of his film, the Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra, Douglas denied that his decades of smoking and drinking had anything to do with his cancer. “Without wanting to get too specific,” he said right before getting too specific, “this particular cancer is caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), which actually comes from cunnilingus.”

Agency

Agency

So how right or wrong is Douglas? To start with, HPV is a very commonly-occurring virus. Over 90% of sexually-active people will contract a strain of the virus by the age of 25. The virus, in most of its forms, is usually harmless. It is a small number which can increase the risk of developing several cancers, such as that of the cervix, penis, vagina, anus and oropharynx. The last is the oral part of the pharynx, and is known more commonly as throat cancer. For the most part, medical experts have compared having HPV to “having a flu”. The body fights off the infection, and it is in very few cases that it develops into cancer.

The links to oral sex remain unclear. An English study noted that the prevalence of cancer in the mouth was more common amongst American men than women, and the study concluded that this was because the concentration of HPV was more in female genitalia. Another study at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health pointed out that its not the practice of oral sex itself, but multiple sex partners which is the most important factor. “It is difficult, given the risk of multiple sex partners, to tease out the importance of any single sex practice,” said Raphael Viscidi of the study to Salon website. Other medical experts have discounted the risk entirely. “There are no data to directly support a link between changes in sexual behavior and increased incidence of HPV-associated cancer, because the data do not exist,” Dr Maura Gillison, chair of cancer research at Ohio State University who has studied HPV, told the MyHealthNewsDaily website in an email.

But despite the overwhelming presence of HPV in the sexually-active population, the frequency of its escalation into cancer is incredibly low. The above study found that oral cancers linked to HPV only occur approximately five per 1,00,000 cases. Another researcher pointed out that if you’ve had six or less sexual partners, and are in monogomous relationships, your chances of HPV excalating into cancer are miniscule.

The greatest risk for oral cancer is still from cigarettes. Douglas might have discounted his years of drug and alcohol use, which resulted in a rehab stint in the early nineties, but we shouldn’t trust an actor who plays Liberace about medical matters. In a dutiful follow-up to their interview with the actor, The Guardian pointed out that smoking can impact your sexual health as well. People who smoke will prolong the existence of the HPV virus in their bodies, thus increasing the originally microscopic chances of developing oral cancers.

So the shocking takeaway from this story? Smoking causes cancer.

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