3 Jun 2013

Did oral sex cause Michael Douglas’s cancer?

Hollywood actor Michael Douglas believes his throat cancer was the result of oral sex and not of smoking and drinking. So how widespread is the human papillomavirus that he says caused his illness?

Following the news of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy, there’s never been a better time for Hollywood stars to bare all, writes Channel 4 News Science Reporter Asha Tanna. Now the Oscar-winning actor Michael Douglas has revealed he believes a sexually transmitted disease caused his throat cancer.

In a very frank interview with the Guardian newspaper, the actor, who was diagnosed with the condition in August 2010, believes it was as a result of oral sex and not as a result of years of smoking and drinking. When asked he said: “No, because without wanting to get too specific this particular cancer is caused by HPV which actually comes about from cunnilingus.

“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. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it.”

Disputed claim

Douglas’s suggestion that cunnilingus is also a cure for cancer has been widely disputed by medical professionals.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that is known to cause cervical as well as anal cancer and genital warts, but it is thought to be responsible for an increasing proportion of oral cancers.

Last year Cancer Research UK said that the rising rates of HPV-positive cases of oral cancer could be linked to oral sex, but it is still considered to be a rare form of cancer.

More at risk

According to scientists 90 per cent of sexually active people by the age of about 25 will have contracted the virus, but their immune system will have rallied against the virus in the same way as a common cold. But for those whose immune system is not robust, they are believed to be more at risk of developing mouth or throat cancer over time.

HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners – even when the infected person shows no symptoms. There are more than 100 different strains of the virus but only around 20 are linked to increased cancer risk. HPV type 16 is the virus known to cause throat cancer.

Vaccination is currently not offered to boys and men in the UK as they are not considered to be a high-risk group.

A vaccine against HPV is available for girls from the age of 12 on the NHS to protect against cervical cancer, but it is not mandatory. Vaccination is currently not offered to boys and men in the UK as they are not considered to be a high-risk group.

Douglas, who is married to Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones, was diagnosed with cancer in August 2010 after a walnut-sized tumour was found on his tongue.

Some medical professionals have expressed scepticism that Douglas’s condition was solely caused by oral sex. In 1992 he was admitted to rehab for an addiction, which some claim was for sex – but he has denied this, saying it was for alcohol abuse. Douglas has also spoken of recreational drug use.