HealthWatch: Michael Douglas’ Throat Cancer Throws Spotlight On HPV

STANFORD (KPIX 5) — Actor Michael Douglas said in an interview published Monday that his throat cancer was caused by a virus he contracted by performing oral sex on women.

Doctors have known for some time that the sexually-spread HPV, or human papillomavirus, can cause some types of oral cancer. But the 68-year-old Douglas’ comments on his own situation have thrown a spotlight on a subject not often discussed.

HPV is best known for causing cervical cancer and genital warts – but it also can be spread by oral sex, and men are more susceptible than women because it’s believed they have lower amounts of antibody protection against the virus.

“It is not one of the more common cancers, but (oral cancer from HPV) seems to be rising particularly among younger people,” Dr. John Sunwood, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford University Medical Center, told KPIX 5. “Projected numbers estimate that this will exceed the incidences of cervical cancers in the next several years.”

The Associated Press estimated about 2.5 million Americans currently have oral HPV infections, but only about 14,000 cases of that type of oral cancer are expected this year.

The virus is hard to avoid, experts noted to the AP since as many as 75 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with it at some point. Most people clear the infection on their own within two years. Some, however, have difficulty ridding themselves of HPV – and in some instances, the virus creeps down through tiny fissures in the base of the tongue or in the tonsils to lodge deep in the tissue, which is where they can become dangerous cancers, according to experts.

(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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