If you follow celebrity gossip, you have probably seen Michael Douglas in the news recently for speaking out about his battle with throat cancer. Though he was diagnosed nearly three years ago, Douglas came out in an interview with UK newspaper The Guardian on Sunday to discuss the disease and how he has been able to cope. But the real controversy arose when Douglas suggested that his throat cancer may not have been caused by his years of drinking and smoking after all, but rather, by a strain of the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is contracted through oral sex.
It didn't take long for the media to run with this story. As we all know, sex sells. And anytime a celebrity mentions the word "cunnilingus" in an interview, there is bound to be a bit of frenzy. Since then, dozens of stories have surfaced debating whether Douglas was talking specifically about his diagnosis or in more general terms about HPV-related head and neck cancer. Either way, the media buzz has given a great deal of attention to an issue that typically goes unmentioned.
As we have discussed in previous blog posts, HPV-related head and neck cancers are on the rise. More and more, we are seeing young, generally healthy, non-smokers diagnosed with throat cancers. Some researchers even believe that up to 80% of oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. are due to infection with the HPV virus.
While we certainly can't forget that alcohol and tobacco use are huge factors in the development of head and neck cancer, it is important to raise awareness on these lesser known attributors, like HPV.
Douglas said in comments issued by a spokesman on Tuesday, "I never expected to become a poster boy for head and neck cancer, but, if after what started out as trying to answer a couple of questions about the suspected sources of this disease results in opening up discussion and furthering public awareness, then I'll stand by that."
The most valuable thing to be gained from all of of this is raising awareness of head and neck cancers and encouraging people to ask their doctors about oral health screenings and HPV tests and vaccinations. Early detection is your best defense. Together, we can lick head and neck cancer!