What the government doesn’t tell you about oral cancer

Michael Douglas is not a medical expert (though he may have played one once). But his much-publicized comments about oral cancer did open an important dialogue. In fact, had Douglas not spoken up, we would not be talking about the real cause of the majority of oral cancers.

The government likes to label oral cancer another “smoking-related” cancer. Like lung cancer, except they add drinking alcohol as the second the cause. Despite the government’s politically correct war against tobacco, it is not fair to victims to consign lung cancer as strictly smoking-related. In fact, I have written recently about the growing problem of lung cancer among men and women who never smoked a day in their lives.

Smoking and drinking simply don’t explain the whole cancer story.

In fact, when it comes to oral and throat cancers, even the government’s own findings show that a lower and lower proportion each decade relates to smoking and/or alcohol consumption.

Yet, the government doesn’t seem to tell us what really causes more oral and throat cancers today. And it leaves many of us wondering what more we can really do to prevent cancer–besides avoid excessive alcohol and smoking.

Cue the accomplished actor Michael Douglas.

I first met him, literally on the streets of San Francisco. He was filming an episode of the popular TV show of the same name with the veteran actor Karl Malden. I was in San Francisco attending an orientation session at the Asia Society en route to my one-year research scholarship in Southeast Asia.

It was August 1976. And the city streets were cold and foggy. It reminded me of Mark Twain’s quip, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Michael Douglas was making waves back then. As he still is today.

You probably saw the photos of him, thin and gaunt, during his recent battle with throat cancer. His fight was ultimately successful. But at one point, he truly believed it would be fatal.

And who can blame him, given the sad state of mainstream cancer treatment?

Despite the fact that he suffered oral pain and infections for nine months, doctors did not discover his throat cancer until it had grown to a walnut-size tumor at the base of his tongue. This case is another example of the myth that “VIPs” get better medical information and care than the average citizen. (I recently pointed this out with Angelina Jolie)

Luckily, his case wasn’t too “far gone.” And he has now been cancer-free for two years.

But the question remains–what caused Douglas’s cancer?

Like many Americans, Douglas knew he did not abuse alcohol or tobacco. And unlike much of the modern medical complex, he recognized the important role of stress in causing chronic diseases. So, he stated that initially he thought his cancer arose from the stress of problems with his adult son.

But he recently gave an interview about his personal medical journey with the British newspaper the Guardian. The newspaper quoted Douglas as saying the sexually transmitted virus called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) caused his cancer. He said he caught the virus from performing oral sex on a woman.

After the article went to print, Douglas backed off his statement. And he now claims not to know with certitude where his cancer came from. However, he did say he wanted to raise awareness that HPV can cause oral cancer.

And on that point, Douglas is absolutely correct.

HPV is a sexually transmitted disease typically spread through genital and genital-oral contact. And one type of the HPV virus–called HPV16– causes oral cancers.

According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV infections account for about 5 percent of all cancers worldwide.

However, HPV infections can be very hard to spot. Most don’t cause any symptoms. And your immune system fights the infection as it would any other virus. So, within one or two years, most HPV infections go away on their own.

Some HPV infections, however, can persist for many years. Persistent infections, if untreated, may progress to cancer.

Unfortunately, HPV viruses have become much more prevalent throughout the population in recent decades. And the rise in oral cancer directly stems from this growing trend.

In fact, HPV infections caused just 16 percent of all oral cancers between 1984 and 1989. But between 2000 and 2004, HPV caused 72 of all oral cancer tumors. If the trend continues, HPV will cause more oral cancers than cervical cancers in this country by the year 2020.

Michael Douglas helped bring these little-known statistics into the light of day.

And these statistics help expose the flaws and fill in the blanks in the government’s faulty “smoking + alcohol = cancer” arithmetic equation. Indeed, they explain the government’s own findings…that alcohol and tobacco do not cause the majority of today’s oral cancers.

So, I’ll tell you like it is: The most reliable way to prevent HPV infections is to avoid skin-to-skin, oral, anal, or genital contact. For those who are sexually active, a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner is the strategy guaranteed to prevent an HPV infection and eliminate most of the risk of oral cancer.


1. “HPV and Cancer Fact Sheet,” National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov), 3/15/12

2. “Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States,” Journal of Clinical Oncology 2011; 29(32):4294–4301