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What's Behind Michael Douglas's Cunnilingus Confession?

He says oral sex caused his illness -- but what's the whole story?
 
 
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If this is the start of a worldwide oral sex shortage, blame Gordon Gekko. In an eyebrow-raising Sunday interview with the Guardian, 68-year-old Oscar winner Michael Douglas has opened about his recent bout of cancer – and what he says caused it.

“Stage 4 cancer and a shit-pot of chemo and radiation,” he admitted, “that’s a rough ride. That can really take it out of you. Plus, the amount of chemo I was getting, it zaps all the good stuff too. It made me very weak.”

But when writer Xan Brooks asked the actor, who in 1992 did a stint in rehab for drug and alcohol dependence, if he felt his hard living had contributed to his cancer, Douglas demurred. “No,” he said. “No. Because, without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus],  which actually comes about from cunnilingus.

Kind of makes you wonder what constitutes “not too specific” in the Michael Douglas household. He continued, “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. That’s right. It giveth and it taketh.” Somewhere right now, Catherine Zeta-Jones is accepting the  “My husband just said the most mortifying thing EVER” award from Jennifer Garner.

Incredible as Douglas’ words may seem to cunnilingus enthusiasts, he’s got science to back up his claim. An April study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology  “detected HPV in about 66 percent of those with oesophageal cancer.” As the National Cancer Institute points out,  “more than half of the cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx are linked to HPV-16,” a particular strain of the virus. It does not, however, offer any advice on curing it via a little trip downtown – chemo and radiation are probably still a safer bet in that department. As Sydney University’s Faculty of Dentistry professor Mark Schifter told the Sydney Morning Herald Monday,  “It would be very hard to get a randomized, controlled study to prove that” oral sex cures cancer.

 

You’d probably get a lot of volunteers for the trial, though.

Douglas’ openness could be interpreted in certain circles as a useful bit of awareness-raising; after all, the cancer risks of HPV to men are rarely discussed. It’s an important factor to consider in our ongoing conversations about the HPV vaccine and its long-term public health implications for both men and women – less HPV leads to better consequences for everybody. It certainly gives weight to the case for  HPV vaccination for boys as well as girls, a movement that has been far too slow to get off the ground — because HPV is still largely viewed as a lady virus.

But HPV is not just — as the makers of Gardasil itself discreetly suggest — about  “vaginal cancer and vulvar cancer.” Or, as Martha Plimpton tweeted Monday, “Just so we’re clear here: it’s HUMAN Papilloma Virus.  Not LADIES Papilloma Virus.” And Douglas’ admission certainly suggests we need to be far more forthright in how we talk about oral cancers and their causes.

However, statistics don’t tell the entire story. It’s not shocking that the HPV virus is found in such a high percentage of individuals with cancer. The Centers for Disease Control notes that “Approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year.” And here’s the kicker: “HPV is so common that  nearly all sexually active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.” Like the vast majority of people who’ve had sex, I too have had HPV. But I’m not yet ready to send out a SORRY FOR THE CANCER email to all my previous partners. The CDC points out that “Other factors, notably tobacco and alcohol use, may also play a role with HPV to cause these cancers.”

 
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