MONDAY, June 3, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Hollywood star Michael Douglas says oral sex caused his recent bout with throat cancer.
"Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus," Douglas, 68, told the British newspaper The Guardian. He added that he has had real success beating back the tumor with chemotherapy and, "with this kind of cancer, 95 percent of the time it doesn't come back."
Douglas is also a longtime smoker, and was at one time a heavy drinker -- both behaviors are risk factors for throat cancer. But experts say it's not farfetched to think oral sex may have been a contributing factor.
"This is no surprise to anybody who studies infectious diseases," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City said. "There is a big increase in HPV-related cancers, and one of the main ones, if not the main one, is throat cancer."
Douglas was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and underwent two months of chemotherapy and radiation. He remains cancer-free, but has checkups often to catch any recurrence, he told the paper.
Seigel said most adults are at risk of contracting HPV, and 80 percent of people will test positive for HPV infection within five years of becoming sexually active. The virus is also thought to cause the vast majority of cervical cancers, which is why U.S. health authorities have recommended that boys and girls get inoculated with the HPV vaccine.
Another expert agreed that HPV contracted through oral sex can trigger throat cancer.
"We are living through an HPV epidemic," said Dr. Dennis Kraus, director of the Center for Head and Neck Oncology at North Shore- LIJ Cancer Institute in Lake Success, N.Y. "We used to think of throat and neck cancer as a disease of smokers and drinkers," he said, but the demographics have changed and it's increasingly become a sexually contracted disease.
The good news is that there is an 80 percent treatment response rate for this type of cancer, Siegel noted.
"It's much more responsive than any other throat cancer. If the cancer is due to smoking or alcohol, the ballgame is over practically. This is very responsive, which is why I'm not surprised to see that he's cured," Siegel said.
If a woman has HPV, then having oral sex is also a risk for infection, Siegel said. "It's most likely transmitted from females to males," Kraus noted.
Douglas also told The Guardian that oral sex was a cure for his cancer, something Siegel considers humorous. "Saying that oral sex is also the 'cure' is a joke," Seigel said. "He is trying to tell you about courage in the face of illness."
Although the evidence for preventing throat cancer by getting vaccinated for HPV isn't clear, Siegel believes that every boy 15 and older should get vaccinated before he becomes sexually active.
Kraus agreed that both boys and girls should be vaccinated against HPV, but he added that there's not enough data to know how much vaccination might help when it comes to throat cancer. "This is a cancer associated with HPV," he said. "The question is whether vaccination will change the face of this disease -- that's not clear."
For more information on throat cancer, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.