THE taboo placed on oral sex in Jamaica, especially fellatio (mouth to male organ), is slowly dying. But as with any aspect of culture that changes over time, there are still some myths and misguided beliefs that linger among members of the population, and they cling to this incorrect information to keep the taboo in place. One of the most commonly used arguments against fellatio is that the person who performs the act is at an increased risk of developing throat cancer.
The threat of throat cancer is ominous enough to have many women thinking twice about going down at all, and even have the more adventurous ones second guessing how far down they will go (or allow it to go). But is there a genuine cause for concern? Can performing oral sex really give you throat cancer?
The short answer is no, but it can give you HPV (Human papillomavirus) which you can get from any other type of sex, not just oral. Internist Dr Samantha Nicholson-Spence confirms that HPV DNA has been found in cancer cells.
“HPV is associated with cervical, anal, penile and throat cancers as well as vocal cord and anogenital warts,” she said. “There are multiple genotypes but not all are associated with cancer.”
As it is with HPV transmission through vaginal sex and cervical cancer, the number of partners and frequency of oral sex partners increases your risk of contracting HPV.
“Further, [multiple sexual partners] is also associated with the contraction of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus),” Dr Nicholson-Spence warns. “HIV coinfection multiplies the manifestations of the disease, as it dampens the immune system's ability to fight and clear the virus. Infection with HPV does not necessarily mean a lifelong carrier state — as with HIV and herpes — it is possible for the immune system to clear the virus from one's body.”
But let's say you don't contract HPV through oral sex, can you still develop throat cancer?
“Yes,” suggests medical data. Throat cancer (which encompasses cancer in the throat, voice box (larynx) or tonsils), is caused by mutation in the cells, and while the exact cause is unknown, HPV is just one of the factors that have been found to increase the chance of having any of these cancers.
“Excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and even chewing tobacco have also been found to be risk factors,” the doctor pointed out.
Your diet may also increase your risk of developing throat cancer, so you might want to watch what you eat. People who fill up on a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables as well those who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are more likely to develop throat cancer.
So how can you protect yourself?
It starts with protecting yourself from HPV as much as possible.
“Get vaccinated and encourage vaccination!” Dr Nicholson-Spence advises. “There are no symptoms of HPV infection unless you develop one of the complications like warts or cancer. The good news is that a vaccine is available that significantly slashes that risk and also the risk for oral and throat cancers.”
She adds: “Practice safe sex — always use a barrier method such as a condom unless in a committed, monogamous relationship.”
She quickly points out, however, that the condom does not provide 100 per cent protection against HPV, as the virus can be spread by skin to skin contact.
For the other risk factors, you can protect yourself by consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, quit smoking (or don't start), and moderating the amount of alcohol you consume.