Actor Michael Douglas generated a media buzz earlier this year by suggesting his throat cancer might have been caused by a virus spread through oral sex. But new research is lending support to that claim.
Researchers from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit are reporting HPV — human papillomavirus, which can be transmitted sexually — is to blame for the alarming increase of young adults with oropharyngeal cancer.
The study found an overall 60 percent increase from 1973 and 2009 in cancers of the base of tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and pharynx in people younger than age 45. Among whites, there was a 113 percent increase, while among African-Americans the rate of these cancers declined by 52 percent during that period of time.
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"The growing incidence in oropharyngeal cancer has been largely attributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an increased transmission of high-risk HPV," said lead researcher Farzan Siddiqui, M.D., director of the Head & Neck Radiation Therapy Program in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Henry Ford Hospital.
"We were interested in looking at people born during that time period and incidence of oropharyngeal cancer. Not only were we surprised to find a substantial increase in young adults with cancer of the tonsils and base of tongue, but also a wide deviation among Caucasians and African Americans with this cancer."
The study, which was presented at a meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology in Atlanta, noted about 36,000 people in the U.S. will get oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers this year; an estimated 6,850 people will die of these cancers. Oropharyngeal cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women.
Recent medical research has shown that HPV exposure and infection increases the risk of oropharyngeal squamous cell cancer independently of tobacco and alcohol use, two other important risk factors for the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
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