Tool Street

In 2010 Michael Douglas announced that he had been diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer. In 2013 he gave an interview to The Guardian in which he stated that his throat cancer (later revised to tongue cancer) had been caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) transmitted through oral sex. With his identification of HPV as the cause of his cancer he also said that he believed that his other lifestyle choices – smoking and drinking – were not responsible. He also asserted that oral sex was the best cure for his cancer.

Last year, Bruce Dickinson was diagnosed with stage III tongue cancer, and he announced last week that his doctors have identified HPV as the cause of his cancer. He managed not to deny that that drinking, smoking and drug-taking could be contributors to his cancer, or promote oral sex are a cure.

Bruce 1, Michael 0.

Michael Douglas has since said he regrets the comments he made – more specifically – he regrets the embarrassment that they caused his wife and her family. No mention of the dangerous medical myths he has promoted to a huge audience, the idea that HPV is the cause of tongue cancer, other lifestyle factors aren’t, and that sex can cure cancer. It also completely overlooks cervical cancer, which is much more often caused by HPV.

Where does that leave us? With two famous men, respected in their professional fields with many fans, and extremely well publicised illnesses, both caused (apparently solely) by HPV. It’s hard to see how any correction of the inaccuracies in Michael Douglas’s story, or accurate information about HPV can ever reach the same audience.

Electron micrograph of HPV

Electron micrograph of HPV

The main causes of oral cancers are smoking (linked to 65% of cases), drinking (linked to 30% of cases), diet (insufficient diet is linked to 56% of cases), and HPV. Age and genetics also affect risk. To ignore the huge effect of these causes other than HPV is irresponsible. Men are twice as likely as women to get tongue cancer, they are also more likely to smoke more, drink more, and eat less well. With evidence it’s easy to refute these myths.

Most people have an HPV infection. Relatively few people get oral cancer. Not all types of HPV cause cancer, and not all cancer-causing HPV infections cause oral cancers. In fact, HPV infections cause more cases of cervical cancer than oral cancers. Oral cancers are more common overall, but HPV is not the main cause of them. It is the main cause of cervical cancers.

In order to reduce the risk of tongue cancer people need to know which activities are higher risk (smoking, drinking, poor diet) and which are lower risk (sex), so they can choose which to do, or not do. In order to prevent cervical cancer, preventing HPV infection is key. There is an effective and safe HPV vaccine. It is estimated that in the UK it will halve the number of deaths from cervical cancer each year.


Tongue cancer

HPV is a cause but not one of the main causes.

Smoking, drinking and poor diet are the main causes.

Cervical cancer

HPV infection is the main cause and can be prevented.

Michael Douglas

Is a tool.


2 thoughts on “Tool Street

  1. Michael Douglas is a confused man. But given the many confusions doctors cause their patients through lack of clarity and opposing opinions I think it is understandable that he may have been muddled up. Particularly as he was quite ill.


  2. Pingback: Tool Street: Meta-analysis Never Sleeps | Bugs, not bollocks.

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