"I got cancer," Michael Douglas announced on the David Letterman show Tuesday night. He says he was diagnosed with throat cancer three weeks ago and has just finished his first week of radiation and chemotherapy. Although Douglas's cancer has spread to his lymph nodes, it remains confined to his neck region giving him an 80 percent chance of recovery, he told Letterman. "I had a pretty sore throat early this summer and I went through a litany of doctors and they didn't find anything," until August when another medical exam revealed a small tumor. (See his interview here.)
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Head and neck cancers, which form in the mouth, nose, sinuses, and throat, are more commonly seen in people over 50 who have a history of smoking, chewing tobacco, or heavy drinking. Yet, more and more of these cancers are cropping up due to infections with the sexually-transmitted human papillomavirus, as my colleague Bernadine Healy has previously reported. A 2008 study from the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that cases of HPV-related oral cancers, which develop in the tonsils and base of the tongue, had nearly doubled over the past three decades among folks in their 40s.
Douglas's cancer is reportedly located at the base of his tongue, where those caused by HPV tend to appear. He has apparently been given an optimistic prognosis for his stage IV cancer, traditionally the worst kind. But tumors that test positive for the HPV virus have better survival rates than those that aren't associated with the virus, according to a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers. While that's certainly good news for anyone with that type of cancer, the rest of us should do what we can to avoid getting infected with HPV in the first place.
Abstaining from unprotected sex with multiple partners—even the oral kind—should be a no-brainer. HPV can be spread through oral, anal, and vaginal sex, so condoms are a must with new partners. Vaccination against HPV can help prevent infection with the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus; two vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, are currently available and recommended for girls and women ages 11 to 26. Gardasil has also been approved for boys and young men. Beyond HPV precautions, avoid tobacco use and heavy drinking to lower your risk of head and neck cancers as well as other deadly health conditions. And you may want to go easy on the scalding beverages. An intriguing new study published last year in the British Medical Journal found that those who drank "very hot" tea were eight times as likely to be diagnosed with esophageal cancer than those who drank their tea warm.