Michael Douglas: Accidental Advocate for HPV Awareness

A “teachable” moment was created when Michael Douglas revealed in his interview with Xan Brooks in The Guardian that his throat cancer was caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), thanks in no small part to his oral sexual activity with women.  Mr. Douglas, who is in remission from a bout with throat cancer in 2010, became the subject of serious media attention because of his comments. They were later retracted somewhat by his publicist Allan Burry.

For men, the news that oral sex can lead to an HPV infection that can lead to throat cancer is a (ahem) hard truth to swallow!  It’s always interesting to me that when men, especially straight men, are reminded about the potential risks of their sexual activity, taboo subjects like HPV (or any other sexually transmitted infections – STIs – for that matter) suddenly become Worthy of Public Attention.  In this case, it’s a good thing too.  According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, throat cancers linked to HPV infection are outnumbering those that are caused by smoking and drinking.

For women, certain strains of HPV have been undeniably linked to cervical cancer, a cancer that left untreated, can and does kill women.  The medical establishment has known about this linkage for decades.

So why was Michael Douglas’ TMI statement about HPV really that shocking?  Is contracting HPV that much of a shameful and scary thing?

This past week, I took an informal survey of some friends and acquaintances about the subject of HPV.

Several women I talked to expressed disgust.  One said, “This is sooo gross, I’d really not ever hear about it again, please.”

A hip male friend of mine, an anti-war activist, told me that he never heard of HPV causing oral or throat cancer in men, and when I told him that it could, seriously, he gulped!

Another friend of mine told me of a woman she knew who had contracted anal cancer, but told acquaintances and friends that she had colon-rectal cancer instead, because of the stigma associated with anal cancer, anal sex, and HPV.

Apparently, it is a shameful thing to be infected with HPV, or to have cancer that is linked to it, especially for women.  Just ask Dr. Adina Nack who researched the subject and is an advocate for more openness and less stigmatization of STIs, especially for women, but for men as well.

In my cynical mind however, Mr. Douglas’ story isn’t really about HPV at all.

I believe that Michael Douglas just wanted to remind the world that even if he did play Liberace (a gay pianist who died from AIDS) in the HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra, he is still alive and kicking, and is just as straight a ladies’ man as he ever was.

Regardless of Mr. Douglas’s motivations, it’s good that he brought this public health issue to light. Perhaps with more awareness and less stigma, STIs can be taken more seriously as a health concern instead of a social taboo. It’s unfortunate that we have known about the effects of HPV outside of cervical cancer alone and have done so little about it until now, but Mr. Douglas’s publicity is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.