HPV and cancer

Actor's candid talk sparks conversation on link

6/4/2013, 3:42 p.m.
Courtesy, Mayo Clinic

For many years, smoking and drinking were considered the dominant risk factors for cancers of the throat. But this week, The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that the actor Michael Douglas believed that his throat cancer was caused by an infection acquired during oral sex, highlighting a trend that has alarmed many scientists.

Douglas, 68, had previously speculated that years of smoking and drinking played a role in his disease, and his spokesman later said that although the actor had discussed oral sex's link to cancer, he did not say it was the cause of his own cancer. But The Guardian quoted Douglas as saying, "Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes from cunnilingus."

The National Cancer Institute notes that virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infections, with just two HPV types, 16 and 18, responsible for about 70 percent of all cases. HPV also causes anal cancer, with about 85 percent of all cases caused by HPV-16. HPV types 16 and 18 have also been found to cause close to half of vaginal, vulvar, and penile cancers.

Most recently, HPV infections have been found to cause cancer of the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the throat including the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils. In the United States, more than half of the cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx are linked to HPV-16.

The incidence of HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer has increased during the past 20 years, especially among men. It has been estimated that, by 2020, HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the United States.

Other factors may increase the risk of developing cancer following a high-risk HPV infection. These other factors include the following:

  1. Smoking
  2. Having a weakened immune system
  3. Having many children (for increased risk of cervical cancer)
  4. Long-term oral contraceptive use (for increased risk of cervical cancer)
  5. Poor oral hygiene (for increased risk of oropharyngeal cancer)
  6. Chronic inflammation