I have a friend who combatted throat cancer for several years. I was shocked when he told me the cause of his cancer was performing oral sex on a former girlfriend over 10 years prior to his illness.
When he told me that giving oral sex to a former partner over a decade ago had exposed him to the human papilloma virus [HPV], leading to his tonsils eventually becoming cancerous, there was a stunned look on his face, as if he could not quite believe what he was saying. He was one of the lucky ones. He survived the cancer, but according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, 37,000 will develop similar cancers and eight thousand will die from them.
This came back to me today, when I read a story about how oral sex is the leading cause of cancers in the throat. While the article focused on teenagers' perception that oral sex was harmless and the need for boys as well as girls to get vaccinated, my colleague, digital news editor, Jesse Fruhwrith, reveals that this is a fundamental issue for the gay community as well.
Multiple studies have shown that yearly pap smears for early detection of cervical cancer have reduced mortality from that disease substantially, by about 50 percent in the last 30 years. This life-saving test provides early detection of cancer so that irregular cells can be removed.
The U.S. CDC does not recommend routine pap smears to detect anal cancer or throat cancer, not even in patients with risk factors like having had a previous HPV infection in those areas. "Anal cancer screening cannot be recommended until more research is done on how best to screen for anal cancer and if screening can reduce the risk of anal cancer," writes the CDC. I can't find any CDC discussion of early detection of throat cancer associated with HPV, yet anal pap smears are done frequently on high-risk patients, like those who are HIV-positive, despite the lack of research. It remains difficult to find a doctor who is willing or experienced in performing an anal or throat cancer screening and due to the lack of research, we don't know with scientific certainty that any procedure can effectively screen for those cancers anyway.
Men and women who know they were exposed to HPV in their throat or anus, however, might be understandably impatient that more research has not been done to develop a test to detect what may be a cancerous time bomb just waiting to bloom in their bodies.
While things have improved over the past decades in terms of information availability on these matters, throat cancer caused by HPV is even less discussed than anal cancer (searching for "throat cancer pap smear" in Google brings 43,700 hits while "anal cancer pap smear" has 61,700--"cervical cancer pap smear" has 506,000 hits).Remember, iconic sex symbol Farrah Facet died from anal cancer at 62--most cases of anal cancer are thought to be caused by HPV. Actor Michael Douglas received chemo therapy recently for throat cancer and commentators have suggested his cancer is also likely HPV-related. I had hoped that those two cases would raise the profile of this issue and remove some stigma from these diseases, but alas, I don't really get the sense that this has happened.