HEALTH WARNING: Michael Douglas: “Oral sex caused my cancer”

Michael Douglas: oral sex caused my cancer

Actor reveals to the Guardian that HPV, transmitted through oral sex, was responsible for his throat cancer

Xan Brooks’ full interview: Michael Douglas on Liberace, Cannes, cancer and cunnilingus

Michael Douglas and the debate over oral sex and cancer


By Nardine Saad

June 3, 2013, 4:48 p.m.


Michael Douglas recently addressed his bout with throat cancer, leading many to believe that his particular battle with the disease was brought on by oral sex. But now his camp is backtracking on the comments.

In a candid interview with the Guardian newspaper, the actor said that he didn’t regret his years of smoking and drinking, which were thought to be the cause of his cancer when he was diagnosed three years ago.

“No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus,” the 68-year-old said.


PHOTOS: Michael Douglas in ‘Behind the Candelabra’

The “Behind the Candelabra” star, who has been married to Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones since 2000,  was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer in August 2010. That same year, his son Cameron Douglas was hit with a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to charges of distributing crystal methand possessing heroin. 

“I did worry if the stress caused by my son’s incarceration didn’t help trigger it,” Douglas added in the interview. “But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it.”

HPV is indeed a sexually transmitted disease, but HPV infections don’t always lead to cancer, though some types of genital HPV can cause cancer of the cervix, according to the Mayo Clinic.

However, the medical debate continued over the weekend through Monday with some experts saying that HPV, along with smoking, could indeed bring on some types of oral cancers, USA Todayreported.

HPV infections usually don’t cause any signs or symptoms in either sex, but some types can cause genital warts. High-risk types of HPV can cause persistent infection, which can gradually turn into cancer, and usually only cervical cancer, according to the clinic’s website.

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More than 12,000 HPV-associated cancers occur each year in men, and of those, oropharyngeal cancers (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) are the most common, theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention report.

After his remarks, people began to look at Douglas’ sexual history, specifically with ex-wife Diandra Douglas (they divorced in 2000) and his current wife, Zeta-Jones. But over the weekend, Diandra Douglas said that she did not have HPV, according to TMZ. 

Meanwhile, Douglas’ camp is trying to clarify his remarks by explaining that his cancer was not caused by oral sex and he was simply discussing cunnilingus as a suspected cause of oral cancer.

“In a discussion with the newspaper, they talked about the causes of oral cancer, one of which was oral sex, which is noted and has been known for a while now,” his spokesman Allen Burry told the Associated Press.

“He wants to make it very clear he never said that was the particular cause of his particular cancer,” Burry added in the New York Daily News.

As to what actually caused it, Burry said he didn’t think “it’s really anybody’s business anymore.”

“It’s pretty much out there what was said,” he said.

Douglas may not have been off base by suggesting that HPV, transmitted via oral sex or any other fluid-exchanging sexual act, could be a suspected cause of cancer, but it seems that chances are pretty slim.

“While there are dozens of types of HPV, only a few cause cancer. HPV-16 and HPV-18 cause about 70% of cervical cancers. For oral cancer, the most dangerous subtype is HPV-16,” Eric Moore, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, told USA Today.


Michael Douglas
 – the star of Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction – has revealed that his throat cancer was apparently caused by performing oral sex.

In a surprisingly frank interview with the Guardian, the actor, now winning plaudits in the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, explained the background to a condition that was thought to be nearly fatal when diagnosed three years ago. Asked whether he now regretted his years of smoking and drinking, usually thought to be the cause of the disease, Douglas replied: “No. Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”

Douglas, the husband of Catherine Zeta Jones, continued: “I did worry if the stress caused by my son’s incarceration didn’t help trigger it. But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it.”

The actor, now 68, was diagnosed with cancer in August 2010, following many months of oral discomfort. But a series of specialists missed the tumour and instead prescribed antibiotics. Douglas then went to see a friend’s doctor in Montreal who looked inside his mouth using a tongue depressor.

“I will always remember the look on his face,” Douglas has previously said. “He said: ‘We need a biopsy.’ There was a walnut-size tumour at the base of my tongue that no other doctor had seen.”

Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which is often terminal, and embarked on an intensive eight-week course of chemotherapy and radiation. He refused to use a feeding tube, despite his palate being burnt on account of the treatment, and so lost 20kg (45lb) on a liquids-only diet. “That’s a rough ride. That can really take it out of you,” he told the Guardian. “Plus the amount of chemo I was getting, it zaps all the good stuff too. It made me very weak.”

The treatment worked and Douglas is now more than two years clear of cancer. He has check-ups every six months, he said, “and with this kind of cancer, 95% of the time it doesn’t come back”.

The cause of Douglas’s cancer had long been assumed to be related to his tobacco habit, coupled with enthusiastic boozing. In 1992, he was hospitalised for an addiction which some at the time claimed to be sex. Douglas himself denied this and said he was in rehab for alcohol abuse. He has also spoken of recreational drug use.

HPV, the sexually transmitted virus best known as a cause of cervical and anal cancer and genital warts, is thought to be responsible for an increasing proportion of oral cancers.

Some suggest that changes in sexual behaviour – a rise in oral sex in particular – are responsible. Such changes might be cultural, but could also be linked to fears about the safety of penetrative sex in the wake of the Aids epidemic.

Mahesh Kumar, a consultant head and neck surgeon in London, confirmed that the last decade has seen a dramatic rise in this form of cancer, particularly among younger sufferers. Recent studies of 1,316 patients with oral cancer found that 57% of them were HPV-16 positive.

“It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that the HPV type 16 is the causative agent in oropharyngeal cancer,” said Kumar, who also testified to increased recovery rates among this kind of cancer sufferer. This would help explain why Douglas was given an 80% chance of survival, despite the advanced stage of his illness.

But Kumar expressed scepticism that Douglas’s cancer was caused solely by HPV, and surprise at Douglas’s assertion that cunnilingus could also help cure the condition. “Maybe he thinks that more exposure to the virus will boost his immune system. But medically, that just doesn’t make sense.”

Ann Robinson, a GP, expressed interest in how confirmation of this association would affect the rollout of the HPV vaccine, which is currently restricted in the UK. “My main priority with diagnosing a patient with oral cancer is to get them referred, as early intervention can be so crucial. Asking for a detailed sexual history would be inappropriate at that stage.”

Douglas has two children, aged 10 and 12, with his second wife, Zeta Jones, as well as an older son, Cameron, from a previous marriage. In 2010, Cameron was sentenced to five years in prison for drugs possession and dealing, and a year later had his sentence extended until 2018 after he pleaded guilty to possessing drugs in prison.

HPV: the facts

I Don't Practice Safe Sex, I've Mastered It sticker

• There are more than 100 variants of HPV (human papillomavirus). They appear in different parts of the body and manifest themselves in different ways – some cause warts, but most are symptomless.

• Some are spread by skin-to-skin contact, while others are typically spread during sex. When HPV is found in the mouth, it probably got there as a result of oral sex.

• HPV is common – if you’re a sexually active adult, you’ve probably had it. By the age of 25, 90% of sexually active people will have been exposed to some form of genital HPV.

• Around 15 types of HPV are linked to increased cancer risk, but it can’t be explicitly said to cause any particular cancers. It’s a long-term risk factor: over years and decades the risk is increased, rather than overnight.

• It is calculated that between 25% and 35% of oral cancers are HPV-related – meaning that it seems to be involved in 1,500-2,000 diagnoses a year.

• Overall, HPV-related oral cancers are most common in heterosexual men in their 40s and 50s.

• Teenage girls in the UK and elsewhere are now vaccinated against HPV, which should in time both protect them from cervical cancers and – it’s believed – future partners from HPV-related oral cancers.

Read Xan Brooks’ full interview with Michael Douglas


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