Stephen Reynolds

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. Read more