HPV can cause throat cancer

Michael Douglas offers us all a good reason to a) get vaccinated against the two most cancer-causing strains of human papillomavirus (even if you're a dude) and b) embrace dental dams (even if you're straight)


  1. Yet another reason I’m glad I’m in a long-term committed relationship. Not to be gratuitously graphic, but I just had a filling replaced, and the idea of giving oral with a dental dam is…mood killing in a way condoms never are. Even so, I, dude, will be asking my doctor about that vaccine. Does anybody know if I can catch HPV from someone who’s already been vaccinated and tested HPV-free since previous partners?

    1. “Yet another reason I’m glad I’m in a long-term committed relationship.”

      Lest we forget, this is exactly the same conventional wisdom that prevailed during the heyday of the HIV spread.
      Not to mention, some generation Y’ers are of the opinion, “Meh, everyone’s got it already, or is vaccinated already” without consideration of those who aged out of the vaccination window before HPV became a more pressing matter.

      Not to jinx your relationship, but most of us can’t keep tabs on our significant others 24/7, so I hope your trust is on a firm foundation.

      1. My husband and I are both vaccinated. And got vaccinated after we were already married. Because here’s the thing: Sometimes marriages don’t last. People get divorced and people die and serial monogamy (rather than actual monogamy) is the norm. We got vaccinated seven years ago. It hasn’t jinxed our relationship so far. 

        1. I meant I was stating that I hoped not to jinx the relationship by
          saying something “out loud” (though in writing), a la *knock on wood*.

          The basic thrust of my statement though, was you may think she/he is faithful, but it may not be the case. Get vaccinated because although you may think you’re on solid ground, you may not be.
          A woman I dated briefly in 2008 caught HPV from her *then* husband, who was out fooling around with men for years (and is now a woman) and she never had a clue until the final few months of the relationship. She didn’t feel like extrapolating, but I suppose finding warts one day was quite a surprise.

          In no way, shape or form did I mean that a vaccination would jinx/ruin a relationship.

      2. No worries. I’m not superstitious and our relationship is rock-solid :)

        Specifically, we’ve both told each other that if either or both ever want to play outside the relationship, we have only to ask and to practice safe-sex, and we know each other well enough to know we say what we mean and mean what we say.

        No prophylactic is every 100%, but we do what we can. Nothing wrong with having multiple partners, whether sequentially or openly simultaneously (as long as you’re honest with all your partners), but doing it safely is more work that it’s nice not to have to worry about. I myself have been in only a few and serious relationships for two reasons. One: physical intimacy requires a lot of trust for me. And two: I’ve always found a long courtship and the crescendo of desire to make the consummation much more meaningful, enjoyable and likely to help reinforce a deeper bond. That’s just me, and there is nothing at all wrong with people who get different things out of sex.

        My mistake if I gave the impression that I was offering my personal gladness for an easier safe-sex-life as conventional wisdom.

    2. Unfortunately, testing HPV free is no guarantee that there’s no HPV present, is my understanding. The virus can lie dormant and be unnoticeable for years. For a lot of women, you’ll get a positive HPV test for the first time after getting pregnant. It’s not because you just got HPV, it’s because the hormonal changes of pregnancy triggered a long-present, but long-dormant infection. 

      1. I’ll ask my doctor, but the article marilove linked to seems to imply that the vaccine may only be safe for men under 26 years of age. As I’m well into my 30’s, I may have missed the mark. Can’t hurt to ask, though.

        1. I was under the impression that the age guidelines were based solely on assumptions about when primary exposures would occur that are not correct for many individuals–that, if you’re going to get any of the strains that it protects against, you will have done so by 26.  Obviously not true for many.  I’m a lawyer with a molecular biology degree, not a doctor.  On that limited background, I’m having a hard time imagining what the safety concerns would be.

          1.  Seems like one could be tested before being given the vaccine, right?  If not yet infected, get vaccinated.

    1. Can’t doctors tell whether or not a cancer is viral? Because according to the doctor in the article, which I assume you read:

      “It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that the HPV type 16 is the causative agent in oropharyngeal cancer,” said Kumar, who also testified to increased recovery rates among this kind of cancer sufferer. This would help explain why Douglas was given an 80% chance of survival, despite the advanced stage of his illness.

      Do you have countervailing evidence you could share?

      Also, it’s interesting to read it as blaming dirty vaginas (not least of all because there is only one, that belonging to his wife who apparently confirmed the diagnosis, involved). I wasn’t aware that STD awareness was misogynistic or that having an STD made someone dirty. If my beloved partner had an STD, I wouldn’t consider it dirty or the least bit dehumanizing, but I would want to know, and vice versa, so we could take precautions and, more importantly, be open and honest with each other. Fortunately, we’re adults who had the maturity to talk about that and get tested.

      This smacks of all the people who said that AIDS-awareness was homophobic back when safe-sex advocates and the medical community were trying to help people learn to deal with it constructively.

      A disease DOES NOT make a person dirty, full stop. And “old man” sounds faintly ageist in that derogatory context.

      1. My understanding is that detecting the presence of HPV, and the strain(s) present, is pretty doable, which would allow you to exclude HPV as a cause in non-infected cases; but that determining the carcinogen responsible for a given tumor is a less certain matter(especially when you have several plausible candidates competing, as here). 

      2. “A disease DOES NOT make a person dirty, full stop”

        It should not make a person dirty, but perception and STIGMA do not always agree with the way things “should” be.  Thus the word “clean” in reference to STD’s, and it is VERY, VERY common within the dating world. To deny that is naive, if not downright stupid and dangerous.

        1. I don’t deny it. I merely disagree that not talking about a potential risk because many people stigmatize STDs is going to do anything to dissuade those same people from doing so. In fact, I think silence will accomplish precisely the opposite. So suggesting that someone going public with a medical diagnosis is reinforcing those stigmas seems incorrect to me.

          People who are committed to stigmatizing STDs will do so regardless of whether people talk about the risks. People who’s stigmatizing is based on ignorance and who are open to having that ignorance enlightened will only be informed by the dialogue. Not having a dialogue about the risks merely leaves the latter group at the mercy of the former, the ignorant to hear only the message of the prejudiced. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Suggesting that discussing the comparatively rare risk of HPV-induced throat cancer in men is what allows bigots to be bigots misses the point that what allows bigots to be bigots is ignorance, hate and, yes, silence. Discussing medical risks, however rare, does not legitimize misogyny, but suggesting that it does, does.

          You may also note that I use the term HPV-free or HPV-negative. I do so because I find the implicaiton of saying HPV-clean to be that the opposite is HPV-dirty, which is wrong, morally and otherwise.

          1. I merely disagree that not talking about a potential risk because many people stigmatize STDs is going to do anything to dissuade those same people from doing so. 

            I never said or even implied that we must not talk about potential risk.  It does, however, very much matter HOW it is discussed, and I find the way Michael Douglas talked about it very problematic. It’s not exactly enlightening.  I’m also not sure the way it was brought up is worth the “conversation” that may follow, especially considering how many idiots roam this earth, and particularly the internet.

            You may also note that I use the term HPV-free or HPV-negative. I do so because I find the implicaiton of saying HPV-clean to be that the opposite is HPV-dirty, which is wrong, morally and otherwise.

            I also kind of hate the “negative” and “positive” terms, although obviously sometimes limitation of language results in awkwardness.

          2. How would you prefer he had talked about it, other than not at all? Walking on eggshells to avoid disturbing the hornets’ nest won’t work. Hordes of misogynistic idiots will find some other excuse for their idiocy, and not presenting counter-arguments to their idiocy will simply leave them unchallenged. Bigots don’t act bigoted because someone else offers them something they can twist into their irrational rationalizations.

            I still don’t see how you got from “I got throat cancer from HPV, and other people should be aware it’s possible so they can get vaccinated.” to “blaming the dirty gross vaginas.” I see how hordes of idiots will make that unwarranted leap. I also see how they’re going to find someway to blame “dirty gross vaginas” for something else even if no one ever brings up HPV-derived cancer in males. The effective strategy is to counter their idiocy with the truth, not to tell everyone else to hush down or they’ll enable to misogynists.

            I also kind of hate the “negative” and “positive” terms, although obviously sometimes limitation of language results in awkwardness.

            I choose HPV-free as the most judgement-neutral term in a social context. To me, as a scientist, negative doesn’t carry a derogatory connotation in a scientific context. My own philosophy is also partially based on Zen Buddhism, in which yin-yang is seen as a healthy balance and the role of negative as valid as positive. But I realize not everyone is a scientist or defaults to Eastern philosophies.

            That said, HPV is generally something which most people want to curtail the spread of, so there is a certain unavoidable undesirability to the virus itself. The important thing, both ethically and from a public health perspective, IMO, is to avoid generalizing from the undesirability of STDs to the people they infect. Since HPV-clean inevitably refers to the sanitation of the individual proper, it’s a term I don’t use. One can be free of something, however, without that being a comment on their own person, and testing negative for something seems like another way of saying one is free of something, provided it’s said in the context of a medical diagnosis. Certainly there is no way to control for how every last person will interpret any particular term, but that’s why discussions about what is meant are so vital in situations such as this where ambiguity can be taken derogatorily.

    2. Funny, but I read it differently.  I thought that he was borderline bragging about being a cunnilingus pro, in part because that has a little more cachet than being a heavy smoker, once you get throat cancer.  Female genitalia doesn’t typically come with Surgeon General’s warning stickers on the side for someone to later point out how you should have known better.

    3. I have apparently lost the ability to add an edit note to my previous comment, so here it is. Thank you for that article. It was exactly what I was looking for in my first comment, and it presented a somewhat more balanced opinion than your own, IMHO. It’s advice:

      Basically: no need to freak out, but a definite need for education.

      …is especially in line with my own thinking on the matter, and, in particular, my own interest in being informed about HPV both for my own sake and the sake of my partner.

      I also agree with Dr. Santana’s conclusion that there are interest groups who may exploit Douglas and his wife, but that it’s also an opportunity for educating people about safe sex to everyone’s benefit.

      I disagree that there is anyway to even make an educated guess as to why Douglas, his wife and his doctor believe the cause of his cancer was HPV rather than misdiagnosed smoking-induced cancer. Second guessing a medical diagnosis of an actor who none of us really know beyond their celebrity persona based on a single brief article whose editorial decisions we also don’t know strikes me as shaky. YMMV.

  2. Monogamy is indeed a good way of limiting one’s exposure.

    I don’t agree that dental dams are more of a mood killer than condoms — they’re just less a part of our social norms. Dental dams still are not appearing in the sexual-health shelves of pharmacies and such. While it’s supposedly possible to cut open a condom and use it for the purpose, I doubt most folks are making the effort. And I still haven’t seen a good description of how they’re supposed to be used effectively.

    Of course they’re no _less_ an annoyance than condoms. Lose flavor/texture, lose friction/texture, same problem.

    I do have to note that one needs to look at the statistical risk factors. There don’t seem to be enough people getting throat cancer for this to be a major hazard. But if it’s nontrivial, vaccines are generally a good thing, and given that the worst-case outcome is severe it seems worth the investment… especially when considered at a social herd-immunity level.

    1. Actually, the best dental dams I’ve seen (ahem) involve a laxex glove cut open. Thus giving you a handy holder on one end (your thumb or thumb and forefinger go in the glove holes and you hold the other open side. Plastic wrap also works. I think. Actually, don’t quote me on that. I R NOT a sexual health expert and I’m suddenly wondering whether plastic wrap is actually an effective barrier. 

      1. I remember a male friend of mine in high school saying he was pretty sure a trash bag was as good as a condom. Once I was done blinking dumbfoundedly at him, I convinced him and his girlfriend to use more thorough protection.

    1. I’ve had several doctors tell me that point #2 is not actually true. You need the vaccination before you contract these two strains it protects against. You can be sexually active and not have them. Or only have one. Or have a strain of HPV that is not one of these two. In which case, getting vaccinated is still a good thing. 

  3. I think he’s getting out in front of this with the overt cunnilingus excuse to make sure that nobody gets the slightest idea that he’s been performing fellatio.  It’s all the pussy’s fault, people!

    1. Did you just accuse him of infidelity and suggest he has reason to be ashamed if he performed fellatio? Has Douglas been partaking in some anti-LGBT activism I’m unaware of? Admittedly, I don’t follow celebrity news.

      1.  Not at all, but I’m wondering whether that’s why he decided to be so public about this and place so much emphasis on cunnilingus (vs. smoking and drinking, which may well have been major contributing factors): because being private about it might lead to whispering, and he wanted to nip that in the bud.  It has the unfortunate side effect of scapegoating vulvas.

    2.  C’mon. It’s Catherine Zeta-Jones! I’d see it as an immense pleasure, rather than a duty.

  4.  http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/celebrity/catherine-zeta-joness-mother-catatonic-2013060370642

  5. I recall Joseph Campbell died of esophageal cancer.  *closes eyes and imagines naked Joe betwixt the thighs of his wife, Jean (who was also considerably younger than her husband), following his bliss.*

  6. Okay, okay, Michael Douglas “knew” some women – but what is the deal with the rates of HPV throat cancer with regards to lesbians ?

    1. This is a perfect example of why I rarely read the BBC for news…

      What the hell was the conclusion on that article? It was just a collection of inconsistent statements. I appreciate that’s how they give the illusion of being unbiased, but sometimes it just makes for hard reading.

  7. I actually wanted to get vaccinated when I became single again, a couple of years ago. Doctors didn’t take me serious as I was a fourty something male… Also, vaccines seemed to reduce risk somewhat but far from eliminated it, from what I read. I ended up not doing it. Maybe a mistake.

  8. If I remember well, some claim that the vaccines can actually increase cancer risk in people who have already been exposed to the dangerous HPV strains. (“HPV vaccines to increase the risk for pre-cancerous lesions if adolescents have been previously exposed to the human papillomavirus and then get vaccinated: 44.6% increase post Gardasil.”) This may be BS,  I was unable to verify these claims. But if true, it’s annoying for men, because outside of medical studies, men can’t get tested.

    1. Frankly, that’s my main reason for being interested in vaccination. As much as I want to avoid cancer, the risk in question is apparently rare enough that I’m not as concerned about that as I am about the possibility that I could be a carrier without knowing it, but my partner isn’t. Could I inadvertently give it to her in spite her vaccination? Would getting myself vaccinated improve her protection? HPV-induced cancer is, AFAIK, a substantially larger risk for women.

      The thing about STDs, even in a lifelong monogamous relationship (unless you were both virgins previously, which we weren’t and most people won’t be), is that taking precautions doesn’t only effect one partner, it effects both of us. In a strange way, and provided you’re open and honest with each other and yourselves about it, it’s kind of romantic :-/

  9. And anal cancer, the increased incidence gastric cancer, lots of other head and neck cancers maybe even some prostate and bladder cancers.

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