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Studies Find Oral Sex, Boobs, Cause Cancer

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | February 1, 2011 | Comments ()


20071115-Open_Wide oral sex.jpg

It seems like every week brings a news report about something new that can cause cancer. This week we have two - both of them sexy. The first is a rare type of breast cancer that is slightly more likely in women with breast implants, and the second is a type of throat cancer, which people who have lots of oral sex are more likely to develop. In both cases, the news stories focus on how much the risk factors increase your chances of getting these cancers -- a "significant" increase in the case of the breast cancer, and a three-fold higher risk for the throat cancer. Here's a tip when it comes to critical reading of news stories like these: if they don't give you the actual incidence, then the numbers probably went from "a really small chance," to "a little bit higher, but still really small." Which isn't to say that people at risk shouldn't take the warnings into account, but chances are the news agencies and blogs are gonna hype the danger to generate attention rather than reporting actual numbers.

Anna Reisman at Slate's XX blog has already done a nice take-down of the breast cancer story. The cancer in question, anaplastic large cell lymphoma, has an incidence of 1 diagnosis per 500,000 women annually, and only 3 out of 100 million women when you look at tumors in the breasts specifically. It has, however, been detected in the breasts of 60 women with breast implants (out of the 5-10 million women with breast implants in the world). That's certainly a much higher number than for women in the general population, but it works out to at most a 0.0012% chance. So yes, women with breast implants are more likely to develop this type of breast cancer, but it's still very rare, even with the increased risk.

The case is similar for the throat cancer story. In this case, the cancer in question is oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC); in particular tonsillar and base of tongue OSCC, which are the most common. This cancer is diagnosed in roughly 60,000 people globally per year (less than 1 in 100,000). The human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be spread to the throat via oral sex, is associated with this type of cancer, as it is with cervical and anogenital cancers. (Specifically, HPV type 16, which is one of the types targeted by the HPV vaccine.) In the past 30 years, the percentage of OSCC patients with HPV has increased, and while some of this may be due to better testing, some of it is also likely due to increased prevalence. HPV positive patients with OSCC are on average younger than HPV negative patients and are less likely to exhibit traditional risk factors, like smoking.

On the other hand, a 2007 study of 100 patients with OSCC and 200 control patients found that patients with a large number of lifetime vaginal or oral sex partners had an increased risk of developing the cancer, which means that engaging in oral sex can now be considered a risk factor for OSCC. In fact open mouth kissing can also spread HPV and increase the risk of developing OSCC. So, basically, everything that feels good can kill you. But again, these results are misleading, because like the anaplastic large cell lymphoma, this type of cancer is not that common. In studies of patients in Stockholm, Sweden, the incidence was 2.13 in 100,000, or 0.00213% for the period between 2000 and 2006. Sure, that's an increase from the .93 per 100,000 incidents between 1970-1979, but an increase from 0.00093% to 0.00213%, while significant from a scientific perspective, is hardly cause for alarm. Especially since it turns out that HPV positive patients with OSCC have a much better prognosis than HPV negative patients. And, oh yeah, there's that vaccine for the most common cancer-causing strain of HPV available now. (If nothing else, maybe these results will encourage the FDA to approve it for women and men over 26.)

Look, pretty much anything in excess can cause cancer. There are carcinogens in everything you eat. Hell, sunlight causes cancer. If you live long enough, you will probably develop cancer. That's life. It's a side effect of the fragility of DNA molecules. Your chances of developing certain types may increase ever so slightly if you get breast implants or have lots of oral sex, but the risk isn't really significant enough that anybody should panic over it, or stop engaging in those activities. Indiscriminate sex is still way less likely to give you cancer than sunbathing. So fuck away and remember to read any cancer alarm stories with a grain of salt.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.




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