The Unholy Trinity: Love, Sex and Cancer

Love is a wonderful thing: it changes everything you ever knew about life and challenges every perception you used to have. This powerful emotion can change lives, drive people to do unexpected things, even bring down an entire empire.

Sexual intercourse is considered the ultimate consummation of a couple’s love for each other, which is why marriage remains an important social institution at any time in history so that people can differentiate between love and hot-blooded lust.

The truth is that love (and of course sex) comes with responsibilities and commitment.

There’s the emotional attachment, partner expectations and commitment to each other’s needs and wants. The responsibilities include safeguarding your partner’s safety and wellness even at times when we ourselves are under the weather.

The relationship between sex and cancer remains a sensitive topic mainly because of these commitment and responsibilities.

It is easy to see why: when one partner finds out that your cancer is a result of a sexually-transmitted disease, the sense of betrayal, suspicion and anger can be overpowering.

This is why many are reluctant to seek medical advice and treatment or divulge that they have certain cancers which are known to be related to sexually-transmitted diseases because it suggests promiscuity or infidelity to their partner.

The truth is that it takes ten years for most cancers to develop. This means that a reckless fling or short-term affair ten years ago would only display symptoms a decade later, possibly when you are already nicely settled down with your soul mate with whom you have devoted your life. We all have histories which we may want to forget, but some may come back to haunt you.

Does cancer spread through sexual intercourse then? The answer is no.

But you can catch certain viruses or bacteria that lead to cancer through sexual contact, both oral and vaginal.

Here are some of the most common cancers that are caused by sexually-transmitted pathogens:

CERVICAL CANCER

Cervical cancer refers to the cancer of the female reproductive tract consisting of the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina and vulva. It is the second most common killer in women after breast cancer, affecting more than 13% of women.

99% of cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is sexually transmitted. There are over 100 types of HPV, but scientists have identified only 15 to 20 types that are cancer-causing.

HPV types 16 and 18 are accountable for the majority of worldwide cervical cancers. The other types are considered low-risk HPV viruses that develop into genital warts instead.

Symptoms include abnormal bleeding (bleeding between periods, profuse bleeding with sexual intercourse, bleeding after menopause), unusual vaginal discharge(blood-stained, itchy, smelly and in abnormal colours), leg pain, pain in the pelvic or buttocks and bleeding from the rectum. 10% of women would not experience any symptoms.

A pap test can help detect the cancer early and the patient can get treatment before it progresses to terminal stage.

Treatment include conisation (removal of cancerous cells in cervix), hysterectomy (removal of the cervix and uterus), trachelectomy (removal of the cervix) and chemotherapy. Detected and treated early, there is a 81-96% of survival in a five-year period.

Vaccines for HPV are now available and are included into the Malaysia National Immunisation Programme for 13-year-old school girls. The vaccine is given in 3 doses.

ORAL CANCER

The HPV virus also affects the skin and other mucosal areas of the skin such as the mouth, throat, tongue and tonsils. Recent research shows that HPV is also linked to oral cancer especially if you smoke and drink alcohol.

Recent study conducted by Dr. Maura Gillison at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center on 253 patients showed the presence of HPV16 in 90% of the participants. Out of these, 75% of them are present or past smokers.

In Malaysia, two new cases of oral cancer are seen every month, says Prof Zainal Ariff Abdul Rahman, consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon from Universiti Malaysia. Research is still ongoing to determine why the cancer is targeting a younger crowd.

PROSTATE CANCER

Recent research in the published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (US) shows that men who have a history of sexually-transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea and trichomonas are more likely to get prostate cancer in later life.

These STIs are easily treated with antibiotics. However, men who are infected are less likely to seek treatment for them because they do not suffer the same distressing symptoms women do, such as vaginal itch and smelly discharge.

The germs can lie dormant in the infected man’s body for ten to twenty years, and eventually cause inflammation that spurs the growth of aggressive prostate cancer.

Don’t miss next month’s topic on “Female cancers: Stop The Denial”

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