FORT WORTH -- A shocking announcement from actor Michael Douglas has got a lot of people talking.
In a frank interview with The Guardian, the 68-year-old actor said his throat cancer might have been caused by the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV). When he was diagnosed in 2010, Douglas said smoking and alcohol - known risks of throat cancer - were responsible for his diagnosis.
HPV's links to cervical cancer are well-known. But, the rates of head and neck cancers from human papilloma virus are rising fast.
According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, head, neck, and throat cancers that tested positive for HPV rose 225 percent between 1988 and 2004. The CDC estimates about 63 percent of the oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed each year in the United States are caused by HPV.
"We gotta have these conversations," said Baylor All Saints nurse Sherree Bennett. "There is only one way to get HPV in your head and neck area, and that is through oral sex."
Bennett is a nurse navigator who helps cancer patients through their treatment journey. She said patients diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer are often embarrassed.
She has been educating the public for years about the sensitive and often uncomfortable subject. Teenagers, she said, especially need to hear Douglas' message.
"No, you can't get pregnant having oral sex, but yes, you can spread HPV having oral sex," Bennett said. "And that's probably not something as a 16-year-old, that you're going to have to pay for as an 18- or a 20-, 25-, 28-, or 30-year-old. You're probably going to pay for it when you're in your 40's."
HPV vaccinations can help prevent certain strains responsible for some cervical, head, neck, mouth, tongue, and anal cancers.
Michael Douglas was diagnosed with throat cancer when he was 65. Because HPV infections are common and often silent, there was no way to know he was infected with a potentially-deadly strain until it was almost too late.