Michael Douglas' recent comments on oral sex, HPV and cancer have generated headlines for all the wrong reasons. But why does it take a celebrity to get ill before we talk about health and is accuracy more important than raising awareness?
Now I'm not one to be dramatic but Michael Douglas is lying to your gentials. He's lied to my vagina and he's lying to you too. Ok, maybe a touch dramatic but he's certainly not being completely straight with you. For those who missed it over the weekend, Academy Award winning actor and oral cancer sufferer Douglas, in a frank display of too much information, discussed cunnilingus citing it as the cause of his cancer in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. Asked if he believed his years of smoking and drinking had contributed to the onset of his illness 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." He added: "It's a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer. And if you have it, cunnilingus is also the best cure for it."
If you're like me you will have read this and winced. Not just because hearing Douglas saying the word cunnilingus feels not dissimilar to how I imagine being patted on the thigh by a creepy uncle feels but because what he was saying was all kinds of muddled. The initial report and many others picked up the accuracy issues surrounding the claim that cunnilingus was the exact cause for his cancer, something has publicist has since denied Douglas saying in the interview. There is truth to this, however the assertion it will cause cancer and definitely caused cancer in his case isn't true. Many reports also called out Douglas' assertion that cunnilingus is the "best cure for it". A doctor speaking to the Guardian Mahesh Kumar, a consultant head and neck surgeon in London called him up on it saying: "Medically, that just doesn't make sense." The Throat Cancer Foundation suggested this might be "wishful thinking" on his part.
However, I took biggest issue with his simplest answer, "no". Did he believe smoking and drinking had contributed to his cancer. Full disclosure, I am not a doctor, though I should point out I am pretty damn good at falsely diagnosing myself with terminal illnesses using Yahoo Answers, If you want to know proper facts about HPV speak to your doctor or visit reputable NHS websites. However, I don't need to be a doctor to tell you that if you have HPV and you smoke you are playing a risky game.
Douglas is wrong to fully exonerate smoking as a factor. The NHS says that alcohol too can play a role but the links with smoking are without doubt. HPV is bloody common. Supposedly, 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 strain with most people fighting it off without any course of action or medical attention. The issue arises when you come into contact a high risk strain and your body can't get rid of it on its own. Smoking makes it harder to fight off, it's as simple as that. I don't feel this has been pointed out much in the coverage discussing Douglas' comments and I think it is hugely important to know when discussing HPV. I suspect it is because the link between HPV and oral cancers was discovered in quite recent years so the research is still in its infancy but all the evidence so far points to trouble. Throat Cancer Foundation staff member Ewan Lumsden explained further to me: "Research into the links between smoking and HPV infection of the oral cavity is ongoing but early research indicates, much like cervical cancer, that smoking can increase your likelihood of a persistent HPV infection which can lead to cancer." In the case of Michael Douglas he said "smoking played its part".
I smoked for many years. As a smoker when someone tells you "it can give you cancer" you want to shout "NO WAY!" followed by the world's slowest hand clap. However, I genuinely didn't know the ins and outs of how it gave you cancer. I didn't know there were different ways it could and I certainly didn't know about the issues with HPV and smoking.
I gave up smoking a year ago after being told in no uncertain terms by a doctor that I had a strand of cervical HPV that stood little chance of disappearing without intervention if I didn't. I felt pretty stupid. This wave of embarrassment was probably perpetuated by the fact I had my legs in stirrups and my cervix magnified and projected onto a HD television screen where the consultant was gesticulating towards the HPV affected areas while repeating the words "Smoking, smoking, smoking, smoking!" I quit smoking the next day but as it turns out the HPV still didn't go away and six months later I got to watch, live on screen as a doctor burnt out the cells with an electrically charged wire while asking me about my career plans because I didn't feel anxious enough already. It wasn't the best
Am I being a stickler? Surely any discussion is better than no discussion. It is a debate that still divides opinion in some areas of the medical community with the British Medical Journal publishing highlighting the debate in September last year. Why does it take a celebrity for us to discuss certain issues in the first place? Why is it that most of my friends who know about HPV learnt all they know (some of it incorrect) from the HBO show Girls?
Now 26, I was too old and missed the HPV vaccination now given to girls at the beginning of secondary school but I wasn't even told of it's existence during sex education as a teenager in Wales (coincidentally in the hometown of Catherine Zeta Jones, wife of Douglas. My grandmother once saw her in Debenhams. Yeah, I know. It was kind of a big deal). My overriding memory of sex education was the teacher getting one of the boys in my class who kept interrupting to stand up at the front and locate the clitoris on a diagram of the vagina. He failed abysmally, we laughed, he's scared for life.
But why didn't I learn this in school? Why didn't my mother tell me? Simply because she didn't know, just like I didn't know. I think I perhaps I am a bit hard on Douglas. As Ewan from the the TCF addd: "We have been bombarded today as you can imagine but we are pleased that people are talking and asking about HPV and HPV related oral cancers. There are a few issues with what Michael Douglas has said which are not that useful but raising awareness is very important."
While celebrities who opt to discuss public health matters have a degree of responsibility to speak factually and responsibly (see Angelina Jolie) I doubt Douglas expected the world to jump on his comments with such fervour. Correct or incorrect his comments will have lead numerous people to say "HP what?" and to look up the actual facts themselves which is undoubtedly a good thing. and already debate has begun around extending the vaccination to boys. There are far greater experts to tell you the facts and I urge you to listen to them above listening to me, or Michael Douglas. But if you do take anything away from what I've said please, smokers, let it be this: If you want to give something up it needn't necessarily be going down.
Follow Fran Singh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fransingh