Michael Douglas ‘enlightens’ public on cancer

Actor Michael Douglas has been credited with “spectacularly” raising awareness of head and neck cancer (HNC) after he attributed some throat cancers to oral sex during an interview with The Guardian.

An editorial in the July/August edition of the Irish Medical Journal (IMJ) entitled ‘The Jade Goody Legacy Has Undoubtedly Saved Lives, But What Will be the Michael Douglas Effect?’ claims celebrities have a “mesmeric power” to generate awareness.

“Indeed, [reality TV star] Jade Goody’s tragic death in 2009 was likely to be foremost in the minds of Irish parents’ decision to vaccinate their girls against cervical cancer,” the editorial says.

It says, unintentionally, Douglas’s comments last June may have had the same affect, adding that it was “probably news to many in the medical community in Ireland” that the human papilloma virus (HPV) — a family of more than 100 virus types that can infect the epithelium (tissue) of the skin, cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, penis, mouth, and throat — can not only develop into HPV-related cancer, but can also cause oropharyngeal (tonsillar) cancer.

“While head and neck cancer professionals in Ireland have been aware of the increasing role of HPV-related HNC in recent years, many aspects of this newly recognised disease entity remain poorly understood,” the editorial says.

A symposium in Galway in May on HPV and HNC was “the first dialogue on this subject on the Island of Ireland”.

Ireland’s delayed sexual revolution may be the reason a dramatic rise in HNC has not been seen here, the editorial says.

However, now that Douglas “has single-handedly enlightened the general public about aspects of this cancer”, attention must now focus on assisting doctors in recognising the signs and symptoms of HPV-related HNC, the writers say.

They also say the argument for vaccinating boys against the HPV virus “continues to gain momentum”.

Earlier this year, Australia added boys to their HPV school-based vaccination programme, which currently extends only to girls here.

The good news is that the Cerviva collaboration, based in Trinity College, Dublin, funded by the Health Research Board, in partnership with surgeons and pathologists in Ireland, will shortly embark on a major investigation of HPV in cancers from the oropharynx, oral cavity, and larynx diagnosed since 1994. This will provide the first population-based data on the epidemiology of HPV infection in HNC in Ireland.


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