When A-list movie star Michael Douglas blamed oral sex for his terrifying bout with potentially deadly throat cancer in 2013, he created a media buzz that left many fans rolling their eyes.
But now research findings suggest he was may have been telling the truth. What’s more, he isn’t alone.
Health statistics in several affluent nations, including the U.S., reveal skyrocketing rates of throat and tongue cancers — often tied to sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) — among middle-aged people.
The latest research from the Australasian Association of Cancer Registries — a grouping of Australia’s state and territory registries plus neighboring New Zealand’s registry — make clear the connection between HPV and the rising cancer rates.
The research tracked patients diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer between 1987 and 2010. Researchers found that only 20 percent of diagnoses were linked to HPV between 1987 and 1995. But between 2006 and 2010 the HPV-related cancer rate was more than three times as high — 64 percent.
While smoking is also a well-known risk factor for throat and oral cancer, the researchers also noted smoking rates generally declined during the same period of the study.
In fact, the number of people who’d never smoked but were diagnosed with throat cancer almost doubled during that time — from 19 percent to 34 percent — intensifying warnings that HPV may overtake nicotine and alcohol in the future as a cause of oropharyngeal cancers.
In addition, rapidly growing numbers of patients with oropharyngeal cancers are testing positive for HPV, suggesting it caused the illness rather than heavy smoking or alcohol consumption, researchers say.
Oropharyngeal cancers are usually found in the rear one-third of the tongue or the tonsils. And most victims are male.
Some doctors contend the popularity of oral sex in the wake of the sexual revolution which started in the 1960s spread HPV to more people’s mouths and throats.
Matthew Magarey, M.D., who specializes in cancer surgery of the sino-nasal cavity, oral cavity, oropharynx and larynx, salivary glands and thyroid, has closely monitored this worrying trend.
“It’s an international phenomenon,” the U.S.-trained surgeon, now working in Melbourne, Australia, tells Newsmax Health. “More HPV-related throat cancers are occurring in people between 40 and 60.”
He notes that HPV can also be transmitted through kissing or even handshakes, in some cases. And the virus is very common.
“As many as 80 percent of adults have had some sort of HPV infection. There are more than 100 strains of the virus, most symptomless with many people clear of the virus within a few months,” he explains.
“HPV in the throat can take 30 to 40 years to turn into a cancer, when it does.”
The good news? “Treatments are getting better and there’s a high survival rate if it’s found early,” he says.
Dr. Magarey uses robotic surgery to remove the cancers, which typically requires a hospitalization of a few days.
Before robotic surgery, hospital stays were longer, varying considerably depending on patients’ progress. Robotic surgery has helped surgeons remove cancers more precisely and in less time. “This reduced long-term recovery problems such as difficulty eating, drinking and swallowing,” Dr. Magarey notes.
He uses the robotic technique on patients at the University of Melbourne-linked Peter McCallum Cancer Centre and is one of the city’s few surgeons trained in the method.
According to Dr Magarey, the most common first sign of throat cancer is a lump in the neck that persists longer than two or three weeks.
Other symptoms include sore throats for longer than a few weeks and difficulty swallowing.
“If you have these symptoms, see your doctor and get a referral to a qualified surgeon who can properly examine the throat,” he advises. “Just looking in the mouth isn’t enough.”
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