Before his handlers took back what the actor had divulged, Michael Douglas touched off a media and medical sensation last June when he announced he had contracted throat cancer as a result, years earlier, of oral sex. Inadvertently, he inspired a teachable moment for a persistent problem — the sometimes highly disparate rates of cancer among racial and ethnic groups. But this disparity was a mirror image of the usual: Head and neck cancers rank among the rare cancers that afflict white Americans more often than any other demographic group.
The explanation is historical — and scintillating. This form of cancer is most often caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is transmitted by oral sex. In the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whites took to oral sex earlier and more enthusiastically than Americans in other racial and ethnic groups. That, explains Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, is why white Americans now in their 50s and 60s are suffering disproportionately from head and neck cancers.
But there's something even more revealing in Douglas's tale: His cancer (at the base of his tongue, as it turned out) is in remission, and he expects to survive. While whites account for 85 percent of the nation's cases of head and neck cancer, they die of it no more often than African-Americans do. The reason: earlier diagnosis and better medical care. Head and neck cancers, particularly those caused by HPV, are highly survivable when they're caught in time.