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.
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?
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.
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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