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Oral Sex Causes Oral Cancer—But Don’t Wig Out

Lissa Rankin's picture

Oral Sex Cancer

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could blame all oral cancers on smoking ciggies and boozing it up? At least we already know we’re better off ditching those vices. But are we supposed to have NO fun? I mean, seriously.

For the most part, oral sex is pretty dang safe. You can’t get knocked up. It’s much harder to contract most sexually transmitted diseases. And it feels oh-oh-oh so good. But it seems all good things come at a price.

NPR & CBS News just reported new data showing that 64% of all cancers of the oral cavity, head, and neck are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is usually spread to the mouth and surrounding areas via oral sex. Turns out that anyone with six or more lifetime oral sex partners has an eight-fold higher risk of these kinds of cancers than someone who has never had oral sex before.

But don’t freak out. Compared with others kinds of cancers, oral cancers are rare. This year, 37,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancers (compared to 2 million diagnosed with skin cancer, 219,000 with lung cancer, and 200,000 with breast cancer). But it’s certainly not inconsequential—and definitely good to know.

As an OB/GYN, I spend a lot of time counseling women about the risks HPV poses with regards to cervical cancer and genital warts (you can read more about HPV here and here). But until this data came out, I honestly wasn’t aware of how great a risk contracting HPV orally poses to your oral health.

Duh, Dude, It’s You

Part of the problem is that guys carry HPV without even knowing it. Unless they wind up with genital warts, they may carry the virus and transmit it without having a clue that they’re Patient Zero. I contracted HPV exactly that way. As I wrote about in my book What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend, my now-hubby and I got it on, and shortly afterwards, I had my first abnormal Pap smear. When I told him, he said, “That’s so weird! All my girlfriends have had abnormal Pap smears.” Duh, dude—it’s you!

Same goes for oral sex. While intercourse can increase the risk of abnormal Pap smears and cervical cancer, oral sex can increase the risk of oral cancers in a similar way. But your partner may have no clue he’s even a carrier. Even if he’s had the full STD panel from his doctor, he might still have HPV cooties, since guys aren’t usually screened for HPV routinely.

So What’s A Girl To Do?

As an empowered woman looking to please your partner while taking care of yourself, what can you do?

Tips For Protecting Your Mouth While Still Rocking Your Sex Life

1.     Be mindful of the number of sexual partners you choose. While some of us are Samanthas and some are Charlottes, every woman must keep in mind that the more sexual partners you have, the greater your risk- even if you’re careful.  Go ahead and let your freak flag fly, but take care to protect yourself.

2.     Inspect your partner carefully. If you see anything any lumps or bumps that could indicate HPV, ask your partner to get examined and tested by a doctor.

3.     Consider getting the HPV vaccine. While there is controversy regarding the safety and efficacy of this vaccine, it will likely reduce your risk not only of cervical cancer and genital warts, but also of oral cancers. If you’re planning on having more sexual partners than you’ve had already, getting the vaccine may help protect you (but will not eliminate the risk). If you’re already in a monogamous relationship and plan to stay that way, skip it.  The damage is done, and there does not appear to be an upside to getting vaccinated if you’ve already been exposed to HPV.

4.     Use condoms and dental dams during oral sex. I know it ain’t sexy. In fact, it’s downright icky for most people to consider licking latex. But it will help reduce the risk of contracting HPV orally. Some even use double-ply Saran Wrap to cover the whole area so you can really go nuts. While I’ve never read any data to prove that Saran Wrap protects you as well as latex, it can’t hurt—and because it’s thinner, comes in bigger strips, and can be custom-placed wherever you like to lick, you may find it more appealing.

5.     Don’t live in fear. I know some of you are going to read this and then go home and tell your boyfriend you’re done going down on him. Do me—and him—a favor, and don’t do that. While oral sex does seem to increase the risk of oral cancer, you simply can’t live your life constantly afraid of what might happen. If you do, you might as well die now. Remember, every time you get in a car, you take the risk that you might die in a car crash. In fact, more than 40,000 people die in car accidents every year in the US alone (way more than the number of people who die from oral cancers). So if you’re going to stop enjoying oral sex, you better also start walking to work. Life is full of risk. You can turn yourself into a jittery little neuron terrified of every itty bitty thing that could go wrong, or you can empower yourself, get educated, making mindful choices, and then let it go.

Learning about your body and understanding the risks of the behaviors you choose to engage in makes you even more friggin’ powerful than you already are. So don’t bury your head in the sand. Face the truth, make empowered choices, and live like you mean it.

Then go down on your lover. Because it’s good. It’s juicy. It’s intimate. And in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Just sayin’…

Lissa

Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Woman coach, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.

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Comments

Lissa Rankin's picture

Oh Sue- go get jiggy with your man!

Once you've got it, you've got it. So it's not like your risk goes up with each blow job or licking. I feel your concern, sister, but life is for living. If you've been together a while, any increased risk has likely already happened. So go live it up and let it go. Life is short. Do it justice!

Much love
Lissa

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Sue's picture

Thanks Lissa--I feel much

Thanks Lissa--I feel much more at ease. At least I know the damage has been done. It's just so frustrating with all these paps and procedures and talk of a hysterectomy. Ugh.

Sue's picture

Reinfection

I realize that HPV is a virus, so once you're infected it's done. My question is, if you are already infected with the virus (I have the high risk version, have had 6 bad paps, 2 biopsies, cryo and LEEP and still have it), does having oral sex repeatedly increase the chances of oral cancer or are you no more at risk the 100th time than you were the first time? Assuming this is with the same man of course.

Oral sex used to be part of our regular routine and now I am paranoid of it, for him and me. I have no desire to lick a condom or saran wrap, it just doesn't do it for me. He's willing to go down on me but I don't think it's worth the risk to him. I just feel so afraid and anxious because I keep getting bad paps and all the procedures are not working. I just want to know if I'm increasing my chance of oral cancer every time or if the damage has already been done.

Also, if I ended up getting a series of "good" paps, does that even mean oral sex is ever safe again with him?

By the way, he's only my 5th partner (I'm 39) so I guess the statistics are an average, of course. I don't understand why guys aren't tested or treated for this!

Thanks for your consult.

mohrle's picture

gardasil vaccine

i would like to know who funded this research. it seems to me that big pharma is not getting enough profit by selling this vaccine to young girls, now they have to get every woman alive to make a profit. i love to go down on my man anytime, anywhere and i will not be bullied into fear or getting a vaccine that is dangerous. i refuse to show up at death's doorstep all intact and with no bumps and bruises or scrapes on my 'perfect body' (lol), no i will show up with bumps and bruises and cuts and scrapes and than i know i have lived a life worth while living.
namaste
mohrle

mohrle's picture

gardasil vaccine

i would like to know who funded this research. it seems to me that big pharma is not getting enough profit by selling this vaccine to young girls, now they have to get every woman alive to make a profit. i love to go down on my man anytime, anywhere and i will not be bullied into fear or getting a vaccine that is dangerous. i refuse to show up at death's doorstep all intact and with no bumps and bruises or scrapes on my 'perfect body' (lol), no i will show up with bumps and bruises and cuts and scrapes and than i know i have lived a life worth while living.
namaste
mohrle

Anonymous's picture

gardasil

may decrease the risk of oral cancer but I would question whether the cost would be worth it. How big of a risk is oral cancer anyway? seems rare. taking gardasil isnt risk free either, there has to be balance. Giant pharma companies are not a great source of balanced information, but they're the ones funding the research. Surprise, our results find you should buy more of our products.

Janet 's picture

Thanks For Opening Up the Conversation

Love this, Lissa! It's true that oral sex can carry some risk, but it's not a reason to stop having sex in whatever shape or position you enjoy. Get the facts, make knowledgeable decisions and feel good about them. So great to talk about STIs as part of a spectrum of healthy sexuality.

Sarah's picture

More awareness needed

I think the second comments exposes well the thought that came to my mind while reading your post, and especially the part about the abnormal pap smear:

Most women and men have no idea what an "abnormal" pap smear means and it's not like it's very well explained to us anywhere, including many clinics/doctor's offices. (I've never had a health care professional tell me what a pap smear is for in the few years I've been having pap smears, as a young woman.)

So my suggestion is to openly discuss these exams, what they mean if they're positive, negative, and why they are important to do regularly. Thanks for sharing this info!

Lissa Rankin's picture

Yes Devon

Gardasil would likely decrease the risk of oral cancer- absolutely. I don't think they've yet tested it in order to make such a claim, but I suspect they now will!

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Shari's picture

Interesting

I had an abnormal pap after having my son (some 22+ years ago) and that ended up in cryosurgery due to displaysia, which I was told would have led to cancer if not treated. Is that hpv in an advanced stage? Also, I had an abnormal pap showing hpv about 18 months ago, then after 6 months was retested and it was negative. Is this all related, and what are/were the risks for my man either during the abnormal pap time frame, or after? Thanks for the info!

Devon Moore's picture

Gardasil

Wouldn't a lot of these problems be solved if they gave Gardasil to pre-pubescent girls AND boys?

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