Can You ‘Catch’ Cancer?



We’ve come a long way in cancer awareness over the past half-century and most of us now know that cancer is not contagious, right? Correct. But, in fact, you can acquire a common virus – Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – that increases your chance to develop a variety of cancers.

Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we are devoting some space on our blog and social media pages to issues surrounding HPV. Today, we start at the beginning by debunking some common myths about how HPV is transmitted.

Cancer caused by a virus? Yes.

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). And it’s not a rare virus. In fact, the majority of sexually active adults will acquire the HPV virus at some point in their lives. Most will eventually clear the virus on their own and will not develop cancer, but many will go on to develop an HPV-associated cancer or HPV-related warts.

But HPV only causes cancer in women, right? Wrong.

HPV is best known as the cause of most cervical cancers. It is also associated with other female cancers, such as cancers of the vulva (outer female genitalia) and vagina, but HPV doesn’t just affect females. Both men and women are at risk for HPV-related cancers of the mouth, throat, tonsils and tongue, passed and acquired by oral sex. Men can also develop HPV-related cancer of the penis.

Wait. You’re only at risk for HPV if you’re promiscuous, right? Wrong.

You can get HPV by having sexual contact with just one person. In fact, you can acquire HPV as a virgin.  That’s right – even without having sexual intercourse you can acquire HPV through skin-to-skin contact of genitalia, giving or receiving oral sex, sharing sex toys and with anal and vaginal sex.

But I always use condoms during sex, so I’m protected from getting HPV?  Unfortunately, no.

The proper use of latex condoms decreases the risk of acquiring HPV, but due to skin-to-skin contact of areas not covered by the condom you can still get HPV and other sexually-transmitted conditions, like herpes.

What can I do to decrease my chance of getting HPV?

In honor of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we will be discussing HPV on our blog, Twitter and Facebook pages pages for the next few weeks. Stay tuned for discussions on vaccinations that decrease the risk of acquiring HPV as well as lifestyle choices you can make to make you less susceptible to this virus.

Photo by Markus Groller, via Flickr