When our celebrity culture spills over into the medical culture, good things can happen. Most recently, it was when Angelina Jolie publicly disclosed in a New York Times article that she had had prophylactic (preventive) breast removal surgery. Like other members of her family who had died from breast cancer, she also possessed the genetic markers that raised her odds astronomically of contracting it. Her disclosure was a welcome teaching moment.
But as noted on the Boston Globe’s website, Boston.com, that was not the case earlier this month when Michael Douglas attributed his throat cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV) he contracted from engaging in oral sex on women.
The news might have reinforced Douglas’ cred as a sex symbol, but Boston.com writer Dr. Suzanne Koven deplored it. She labeled it “The Michael Douglas Factor: When a celebrity, even one with good intentions, uses his or her own condition to disseminate incomplete, misleading, or incorrect medical information.”
As Koven noted, HPV certainly can cause oral cancer, and HPV affects both genders. But women are far more likely to contract disease caused by HPV than men; usually they get the virus from men. “All those millions of Pap smears women undergo every year,” Koven wrote, “are screening for cervical cancer and pre-cancerous changes caused by HPV, most often transmitted by a male sex partner.”
After Douglas told London’s Guardian newspaper that his cancer was caused by neither smoking nor drinking alcohol, but by cunnilingus, he clarified his comments to say that he had been speaking “generally.” But, of course, that’s not what most people will remember. That will just keep the celebrity story alive without prompting most people to become informed about either throat cancer or the effects of contracting HPV.
Douglas’ pronouncement, Koven said, recalls the time actor Gene Wilder went public after his wife, actress Gilda Radner, died in 1989 from ovarian cancer. Wilder hoped her tragic end would prompt women to get screened for a blood factor called CA-125 that purportedly indicated the likelihood or presence of that cancer. Except that it doesn’t-see our blog about the questionable value of ovarian screening tests.
Koven welcomed the opportunity that Douglas’ story brought for greater public awareness of HPV and the wisdom of young people being vaccinated against it before they become sexually active, because even oral sex can transmit disease. (See our blog about vaccinating teens.)
We agree with Koven: “We already have centuries of mythology about the dangers to society of female sexuality. …What we need, Mr. Douglas, is information. Not TMI.”