When a Virus Causes Cancer

May 11, 2011 at 10:36 am , by

bacteriaThe human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer, which we’ve long known. But the virus may also lead to oral cancer (yes, from oral sex) as well as anal cancer and even bladder cancer. It’s one nasty bug. I’ve been writing about this since 2003, when I first heard Maura Gillison, M.D., present pioneering research connecting HPV to the rise in oral cancer.

Then, in 2007, I learned that my friend Stephen Reynolds had advanced oral cancer. He was in his 40s, had never smoked and was married with a 3-year-old son. Yes, his cancer was HPV-positive. And he bravely decided to talk about it. After he got through the grueling treatment, we worked on a groundbreaking feature together that ran in Reader’s Digest in 2008. It got a lot of attention. Still the mainstream media didn’t pick up and run with the topic.

Around that time, I heard that Grant Achatz, the 36-year-old star chef at Alinea in Chicago, had been diagnosed with advanced oral cancer. It got a lot of press, especially when his doctors told him the only way to save his life would be to have immediate surgery to remove his tongue. The horrible, even epic tragedy of a world-renowned young chef never being able to taste food again captured a lot of attention. I heard that he had never smoked, so I wondered if his cancer was HPV-related, and also wondered if he’d speak about it. He didn’t. He was busy trying to save his life.

He refused the surgery and sought any alternatives that might save his tongue and his ability to taste. He found it at the University of Chicago, where his team of doctors first shrank the tumor with chemotherapy and radiation, then did surgery that spared most of his tongue. The treatment was harsh, andLifeOnTheLine.indd Achatz was in severe pain, couldn’t eat solid food and in fact did lose his ability to taste for a while, although it eventually returned. He survived, continued to work and, in 2008, was pronounced cancer-free.

When his memoir, Life, on the Line: Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way We Eat, came out recently, I was curious to see if it speculated at all about the cause of his cancer. It did not. It’s a fascinating read, though, about his rapid rise in the food world, the shock of his diagnosis, the pain and anguish he suffered—and his eventual triumph.

Last year, when Michael Douglas announced that he had oral cancer, and People magazine suggested that it was HPV-positive, I hoped Douglas would confirm it and talk about it. He could really make a difference in awareness. He didn’t, and of course I understand and respect his privacy. (Read Reynolds’ guest blog about it from last October here.)

Of course, I have no idea what caused Achatz or Douglas to get cancer. But it’s a simple test to determine if the HPV virus is involved. I’m hoping that someone besides my friend Steve will come forward and discuss it openly. This virus is preventable. And until we increase awareness and make an effective vaccine available to everyone, talking about it is the best we can do.

Photo copyright Irochka, Fotolia.com

2 Responses to “When a Virus Causes Cancer”

  1. It is a June 2012 and I just read this article. I too had stage 4 tongue cancer. Hemiglossectomy which removed and reconstructed 1/3 of my tongue. Also 23 lymph nodes removed followed by chemo and radiation. Like Grant, I had lesions but since 2002 and the dentists just did very little. Did not smoke or drink heavily. Female. In fact ran a 1/2 Marathon a month before the ultimate diagnosis February 2nd. However, it was not HPV related. They tested for that and also married for 40 years. Very healthy eating with lots of fruits and vegetables for years. A surgeon suggested the silver fillings (which are between 49-51% mercury) ) that I had since the early 70′s which were never replaced may have been the cause. Not sure but something is happening with many young people and people with healthy lifestyles getting oral cancer. Maybe it is more than one virus…..


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