Thursday, September 12, 2013

Give me a break, people.

Ugh. I hate lies that gain people unfair rewards or advantages. But I also hate lies that are just untruths for their own sake. In fact that's almost worse, because there's literally no excuse for it. What. is. Wrong. With people.

Recently I overheard some undergrads discussing a lovely new rumor: that oral sex causes throat cancer. This seems like one of those ridiculous "facts" that spread between social groups through hype and misunderstandings, but when I mentioned how ridiculous it is to one of my non-university friends, she too had heard about it. (Apparently, when she had heard about the "fact" had morphed to specify that certain behaviors by females were the cause of the cancer.) This is the kind of thing that a feminist scientist has to get to the bottom of.

I found an article relatively easily. It quotes the CDC as saying, “that people who had at least   6 oral-sex partners during their lifetime were 3.4 times more likely to have   throat cancer. Those with 26 or more vaginal-sex partners had a 3.1   times higher risk of developing throat cancer.” NOT TRUE.

This quote is all over the friggin' internet. Except, of course, the CDC website. When you go there, then you start to actually get some facts. Throat cancer has not been directly linked to oral sex. It has been linked to HPV, the Human Papillomavirus Virus. While HPV is sexually transmitted, that still doesn't mean that oral sex causes throat cancer, by any means. The CDC website, acknowledges that "recent studies show that about 60%–70% of cancers of the oropharynx may be linked to HPV. Many of these may be caused by a combination of tobacco, alcohol, and HPV."
Considering the fact that HPV is the most common STD in the US, with the number of women reaching as high as 42.5% (and including women with only a single sexual partner), it's not all that surprising that lots of people with oropharynx cancer have HPV. Furthermore, in my biologists's mind, it's likely that even if HPV does increase risk of throat cancer, it doesn't have to be transmitted orally- viruses are tricky little buggers that can hijack cells, travel through the body in the bloodstream, avoid detection and fool immune cells by hiding in the spinal nerves.

Finally, an important FYI for all the non-scientists out there. Cells don't just get bitten by radioactive spiders and immediately become superheros. I mean cancerous. Whatever. In reality, cells develop "cancer" mutations in their DNA all the time, due to carcinogens like UV and smoke (and also just normal cell division) but these mutations can be caught and fixed by the body. The mutations only cause true danger when the same cell has multiple mutations, which is obviously made more likely by a combination of carcinogens, such as listed above (or by many frequent divisions, which is why cancers are linked to cell lines that continue to divide throughout life, but that's a totally different topic).

Why does this matter (besides making me angry)?

People pretend that we're so sexually liberated in our society, because people like Miley Cyrus strut around with barely any clothing on. And yet, people still don't bother (or are too embarrassed to) find out the facts. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER. KNOWLEDGE WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE. I hate when people spread around scary rumors like this one. Increased anxiety and distress over possible fatal diseases is not really what our society needs right now.What we need are people who are informed and responsible with their bodies and health, and the first step towards that is facing down fear and finding out the facts and actual risks we expose ourselves to. (On a related note, this reminds me of a former colleague who just didn't believe that ethidium bromide could hurt him. While it's true that limited exposure to this chemical is unlikely to negatively impact health, prolonged and repeated exposure most certainly should be predicted to, if not protected against. As biologists, we will probably be handling this chemical for a large part of our careers. As with many things, the aforementioned fellow was just too scared to accept the fact that he is not invincible and act accordingly.)

In addition, this whole fiasco bothers because this is how prejudices are born. Isn't this what happened with HIV? People who were diagnosed were stereotyped as being drug users or sex-crazed gay men. While those are two lifestyles that may lead to heightened exposure to the virus, it's still totally unfair to people who contracted HIV from moms or family members (let's be honest, it's not unusual for family members co-habitating to come into contact with each other's blood), from the workplace (not only nurses and doctors, but also vets and even loggers in Africa- who are probably exposed to the virus through eating monkey flesh), or, god forbid, a rape. Are we going to start doing the same with throat cancer- assuming that someone who gets it is a huge slut, going down on people left and right? Is it just me, or is that a really private thing to assume about someone because of a disease? 

Instead, I'd like us to be reasonable people and heed what the CDC (actually) said, which is that a medley of risk factors increase the likelihood that multiple mutations will occur in the same cell and become cancer.

Bonus rant:
You should get the HPV shot. Your children should get the HPV shot. It's total BS to say that getting the shot is somehow going to increase their likelihood of shacking up. Teens are notoriously overconfident and brash and are going to do what they do. If you raised them to care about their bodies, emotions, and spirit, then that's going to influence their sexual behavior infinitely more than getting a shot. Also, is fear really how you want to keep your young adult in line? (Don't have sex or you'll get an STD, develop throat and/or cervical cancer, and die!!) And finally, if your kid is stupid enough to have unprotected sex and isn't frightened by the possibility of becoming impregnated, having a miniature human being grow inside them, causing them to grow a belly the size of an elephant, and step on their bladder every 3 minutes for a month, then the possibility of getting HPV has almost certainly not crossed their mind.

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