On Sunday, Michael Douglas gave new meaning to the phrase "too much information."
In a Guardian article, Douglas was asked whether he regretted his past smoking and drinking, which writer Xan Brooks assumed had precipitated the actor's throat cancer. The star went in a slightly different direction: "No. Because, without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus."
Not surprisingly, the Internet went wild. Snarky tweets emerged. The Daily Beast revived the dental dam. The Atlantic offered a full-body condom video. At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams -- after acknowledging that Douglas had science to support his words and that his statement might raise awareness of human papilloma virus -- did some scolding: "It’s hard not to detect more than a touch of braggadocio in Douglas’ frankness. He didn’t get cancer from his well-documented years of smoking and drinking, oh no! He got it from servicing the ladies."
Douglas's spokesman, Allen Burry, went on a media tour trying to insist that the actor never explicitly said oral sex had caused his disease. He told the Associated Press: "In a discussion with the newspaper, they talked about the causes of oral cancer, one of which was oral sex, which is noted and has been known for a while now." Burry told New York's Daily News that it wasn't anyone's business whether Douglas tested positive for an HPV strain tied to oral cancer.
Douglas's personal medical history wasn't anyone's business until he made it everyone's business. He shouldn't quit talking now: He has an opportunity to do for HPV awareness among males what Angelina Jolie recently did for mastectomy and genetic testing for women.
Like Jolie, who made her first red-carpet appearance since her February double mastectomy on the same day the Guardian story appeared, Douglas has the star power to magnify any message. Neither actor is a saint. Their combined histories include bouts of drinking, drugs, rumored sex addictions and vials (or flower presses?) of blood. But it's precisely their notoriety that enables them to raise awareness of issues that are difficult to discuss because they involve breasts and ovaries and, well, cunnilingus.
Douglas's course will be the rougher one. Jolie made her admission in a carefully packaged op-ed in the New York Times. She asserted that she was sharing her story to enable others to "benefit from my experience."
Douglas's comments were both more informal and less accurate. Yes, according to the National Cancer Institute, more than half of U.S. cancer cases of the oropharynx, the middle part of the throat, are tied to one of the more than 150 strains of HPV: HPV 16. A 2011 report indicated that HPV may cause more throat cancer in men than smoking and that, by 2020, the virus would probably lead to more instances of throat cancer than cervical cancer.
But smoking increases the risk of getting cancer after being infected by a high-risk HPV strain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that males and females be vaccinated at ages 11 or 12, before they are probably sexually active. If they were not vaccinated when they were younger, though, males ages 13 to 21 and females 13 to 26 should also receive the shots. The Gardasil vaccine, the only of the two vaccines tested and licensed for use in males, protects against four strains of HPV, including HPV 16, though it has not been explicitly approved for the prevention of oral cancers. Douglas's subsequent claim that cunnilingus is actually "the best cure" for throat cancer? The actor may have been joking, but in any case there doesn't seem be medical grounds for that cure.
Much of the pushback to Jolie's piece has actually furthered the conversation about breast cancer, tests for genetic mutations and mastectomy. There have even been serious discussions online about the affordability of Jolie's course of action, the risk that remains even after a mastectomy and treatment alternatives. We should hope that Douglas’s indiscretion incites a similarly useful debate. It has already created a rush to unearth facts and statistics.
In Salon, Williams lamented that Douglas was even asked how he got sick: "You know what people who’ve had Stage 4 cancer shouldn’t have to account for? How they got their cancer. They shouldn’t be expected to turn their illness into an exercise in rationalization – I’m not a loser who got cancer from smoking; I’m a bad-ass who got it from servicing Catherine Zeta-Jones!"
There was nothing wrong with the question or Douglas's answer. In fact, the actor seems willing to undertake an educational role; at an American Cancer Society event on Monday, Douglas said: "I never expected to become a poster boy for head and neck cancer, but, if after what started out as trying to answer a couple of questions about the suspected sources of this disease results in opening up discussion and furthering public awareness, then I'll stand by that."
And he should.
(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)