So, to find out more about the current buzzy cancer scares, we caught up with some experts to separate the facts from the fiction. Read on to peek behind the curtain of three cancer scares — this is need-to-know stuff.
Oral Sex, HPV, and Throat Cancer
By now, we've all heard about Michael Douglas blaming his throat cancer on cunnilingus. We love safe sex, and think the more it's discussed, the better, but we were also suspicious. After all, if the link between oral sex, HPV (human papilloma virus), and throat cancer is so concrete, why is it that so few people know about it? And what's up with blaming cunnilingus, of all things? Honestly, the last thing we want is for female pleasure to get yet another stigma.
Dr. Robert Haddad, the Disease Center Leader of the Head and Neck Oncology Program of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, explains that HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus; in fact, according to the CDC, it's the most common sexually transmitted infection. What makes HPV so dangerous is that most people who have it don't know about it, since there usually aren't any signs or symptoms. And, while women can get tested for HPV with a Pap smear, there is currently no test for men.
As far as HPV leading to throat cancer, Dr. Haddad says the risk is relatively low. However, he explains, many patients with throat cancer are likely to have had HPV — it's present in two out of three cases, according to the American Cancer Society. He likens the phenomenon to smoking: "Not all smokers will develop lung cancer, but of patients who do have lung cancer, many of them are smokers." So, while having HPV does increase the risk of developing throat cancer, it's not an inevitable result. According to Dr. Haddad, smoking and drinking are much more closely linked to throat cancer.
Additionally, as for the buzz about throat cancer in straight men in particular, Dr. Haddad says that there's no evidence to indicate whether throat cancer from orally-contracted HPV is more or less likely than cervical cancer from vaginally-contracted HPV. Dr. Haddad says that oral sex is just one of many ways of contracting the virus, and advises taking safer sex precautions with all sexual activity. And, having a partner with HPV-related oral cancer does not mean that you will necessarily develop the virus or the cancer: In a recent study of partners of people with HPV-related throat cancer, the HPV subtype which can lead to throat cancer was present in 2% of female partners and actually none of the male partners.
The main problem with HPV in the U.S., according to Dr. Haddad, stems from a lack of education — not a lot of people know about the extremely effective HPV vaccine. "The number of vaccinations is very low, close to 35 percent," he says. "We need to do better."
The bottom line: While oral HPV can definitely lead to throat cancer, the blame shouldn't be placed on cunnilingus alone, and there are some preventative measures one can take. If you get the HPV vaccination, use protection when you have sex, make sure that you and/or your partner get regular Pap smears, and quit smoking, you shouldn't let Michael Douglas keep you up at night (with worry, that is).
Of course, smoking doesn't just increase your own risk of getting cancer, it increases the risk for everyone around you. Secondhand smoke is a well-known carcinogen, but what about thirdhand smoke? Even after cigarette smoke has cleared, toxins can linger, says Dr. Jyothi Marbin, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland. "Close your eyes, and imagine you’re sitting in a car where someone has been smoking," she says. "Can you smell that lingering odor that remains in the car? That’s thirdhand smoke."
According to Dr. Marbin, the health impact of thirdhand smoke is still being investigated, so while experts don't know the whole story yet, they know that the effects are real and serious. Some of Dr. Marbin's patients have reported that their asthma symptoms flare up in a room where someone has been smoking. ("Even long after the smoker is gone," she notes.) It's no coincidence: Thirdhand smoke contains at least 11 toxic substances, she says, "including arsenic, cyanide, and lead."
Dr. Marbin says that everyone should be concerned, but children are at a greater risk, as they spend more time indoors. "Think about a baby playing on the ground in a room where someone has been smoking," she says. "Imagine all those particles that sticking to their hands as they crawl through the carpet. Once they put their hands into their mouths, they are literally eating those carcinogens."
Non-smoking adults are commonly exposed to thirdhand smoke when they stay in a hotel, ride in a car, or move into a home or a building where smoking is allowed. The best thing you can do is avoid entering areas where people have (ever) been smoking.
It's very easy to detect thirdhand smoke — if you can smell it, it's there. But, Dr. Marbin says, it might be there even if you can't smell it. "Research studies found that even two months after a cigarette is smoked in a room, there are still measurable levels of thirdhand smoke," she says. Unfortunately, there's no publicly available test for it, and it's not easy to get rid of. Dr. Marbin suggests cleaning surfaces or fabrics with an acidic solution like vinegar, and washing walls with hot, soapy water. Though, when it comes to carpets, it might never come out — sometimes you just have to remove the carpeting and start fresh.
So, what should someone do when exposed to thirdhand smoke? Dr. Marbin says taking a shower and washing your clothes can remove the residue. But, much like there is no such thing as a safe level of secondhand smoke exposure, Dr. Marbin says, "It's a safe bet that the same rule applies."
The bottom line: Although there's no 100% confirmed cause-and-effect relationship between thirdhand smoke and cancer, the evidence doesn't look good. "We need to set a high standard for clean environments which are free of toxins and carcinogens," says. Dr. Marbin, "and that means environments free of second- and thirdhand smoke."
Summer's almost fully upon us, and the hotter we get, the more water we drink. But, what about those rumors we've heard about plastic water bottles causing cancer? We'll never forget when Sheryl Crow attributed her breast cancer to the BPA (Bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastics) in re-used water bottles.
According to Shanaz H. Dairkee, Ph.D., a Senior Scientist of Cancer Research at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute and Consulting Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, BPA is all around us, everywhere. "We are swimming in it," she says. "In our homes, workplaces, schools, and recreation areas." She points out that it's used to line food cans and paper plates, in beverage bottles, and even in cash register receipts.
Beverly Rubin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anatomy & Cellular Biology at Tufts University, says BPA is also in the soil, ground water, and in the dust that collects both indoors and outdoors. And, it's not just around us: a whopping 93% of people in the U.S. have appreciable levels of BPA in their urine, according to Cheryl S. Watson, Ph.D, the editor-in-chief of Endocrine Disruptors (Landes Bioscience Journals) and professor of bio-chemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Dr. Dairkee says that BPA has also been found in human blood, breast milk, and fetal liver — which indicates that BPA can cross the placenta.
The danger of BPA in our bodies lies in its relationship to estrogen, Dr. Watson says. "BPA resembles (but is not exactly like) natural estrogens, and can mimic or disrupt the actions of the body’s own estrogens, for both males and females." When a body has too much estrogen, Dr. Dairkee says, it can initiate cancer and precancerous lesions in estrogen-sensitive tissues. The effect has been proven in animals, with results that repeat across species. Though this isn't technically direct evidence that BPA causes cancer in humans, humans are indeed animals, and the results of these tests should be taken seriously.
So, should you ditch your water bottle? Dr. Dairkee says that re-using plastic does indeed cause more BPA to leach out of the product. And, it's even worse for water bottles left in the sun or in a hot car, as the sun causes the chemicals in the plastic to leak into the beverage — a process that occurs at a faster rate in a warm environment. While we can try to avoid using products that contain BPA as much as possible by using glass water bottles, Dr. Dairkee says that using BPA-free products isn't necessarily a safer option — because the replacement compounds haven't been reliably tested yet. "Current regulatory requirements in the U.S. do not place the burden of proof on the manufacturer, which is why there is almost no incentive to pre-test chemicals for safe consumption," she explains.
The bottom line: To minimize your cancer risk, stay away from BPA. "A chemical such as BPA, which is not only persistent but disruptive for normal functioning right down to the level of individual cells in the human body, should be avoided to the best of one’s ability," Dr. Dairkee says.
Illustrated by Zhang Qingyun