With Michael Douglas' proclamation that he got throat cancer, as a result of oral sex, awareness is increasing surrounding the pervasiveness of HPV, or Human Papillomavirus. It's traditionally been regarded as a woman's virus, directly linked to cervical cancer, resulting in vaccines to prevent the contraction of HPV. Now, it's becoming clearer that HPV is no longer just a woman's problem. Both men and women can contract it, carry it and spread it: men typically suffer from throat and oral cancers, while women can develop cervical cancer. In fact, some 7,000 of cases of related head and neck tumors turn up each year nationwide.
Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that affects the base of the tongue, back of the throat or tonsils, and it has been showing up in younger men at an alarming rate. In fact, in a 2009-10 study, it was reported that at that time, approximately 7% of Americans had a current oral HPV infection, and it was found that men were 3x more likely to have oral HPV than women, affecting 10.1% of men, versus 3.6% of women. Fortunately, while HPV can be detected in saliva, it has been shown to be primarily spread through sexual contact, rather than kissing.
Dr. Warren Line Jr. MD, ENT, is an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center. During Line's 25 years as a doctor, he has been seeing more of these types of cancers in younger male and female patients in the last decade, he said.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon. Not long ago these cancers were most common in people over 50, particularly those who smoke and drink alcohol. As the smoking rates began to decline we [the health community] were expecting to see less head and neck cancers, but when the number of head and neck cancer cases went up we knew there was something else going on here,” Line said.
Several large public health studies suggest what is going on is changing sexual behavior. Researchers found the cancers were forming in nonsmoking young men at an alarming rate.