The Deadly Oral Sex Warning You Need To Know Now

Doctors are alarmed by an "epidemic" of cancer linked to oral sex, with urgent calls for men especially to overcome their embarrassment and talk about the issue.

The Royal College of Pathologists of Australia (RCPA) has warned about a rising number of head and neck cancers linked to the human papillomavirus.

Some 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers -- occurring in the tonsils and tongue -- are caused by HPV, the College said. But few people are aware of the RCPA's dire warning that HPV "is most commonly transmitted through oral sex" -- and it's leading to rising cancer rates.

"We are seeing an epidemic of oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV," said NSW Health Pathology Anatomical Pathologist Ruta Gupta, Associate Professor with the University of Sydney and a member of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital's pathology and oncology department.

It's the cancer Hollywood actor Michael Douglas threw into the spotlight in 2013, when he linked his throat cancer to oral sex in an interview with The Guardian.

In 2015, he said he "regretted any embarrassment that it caused" his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Doctors want Australians to recognise the link between oral sex and cancer, and get a HPV vaccination. Image: Getty

The first signs can include an odd lump or persistent swelling in the neck, or symptoms normally consistent with a severe cold or flu.

That's how Julie McCrossin, a former star of cult favourite 'Good News Week' panel show on the ABC and Network 10 through the 1990s, first got her diagnosis.

"In 2013 when I was told I had stage four throat cancer, I hadn't drunk alcohol at all or smoked since 1979, but I had the classic symptoms of a persistent sore throat, earache, and two little lumps on my neck," she told 10 daily.

"You can get throat cancer from HPV. Everyone knows about cervical cancer, but almost nobody knows how it can cause throat, vulval, vaginal, penis and anus cancer."

McCrossin was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in 2013. Image: AAP

McCrossin, a familiar voice on ABC Radio who was this year appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for significant service to the community through LGBTIQ advocacy roles, said people needed to speak more openly about how oral sex links with cancer.

"I had oral sex, and a little bit of HPV must have lodged in my throat. I didn't know until they told me I had throat cancer," she said.

"There's no shame in it. It's ordinary sexual behaviour... there's no embarrassment in talking about cervical cancer, but there is embarrassment for people to talk about cancer in the throat."

"I'm just trying to have the courage to speak about it, put my name to oral sex. I'm not the only person to have oral sex in Australia, but if we don't talk openly about it, people will get the shock I had."

McCrossin (right) with Mikey Robbins and Paul McDermott on Good News Week. Image: supplied

McCrossin said she's now six years post-diagnosis, and after 30 sessions of radiation and chemotherapy, is currently in the clear.

She's using her health to raise awareness of the cancer, and tell people to ask their doctor if they are concerned -- including MCing and coordinating a Sydney forum next June titled 'Living Well Before, During and After Treatment'.

"If we don't start talking, more people are gonna die," McCrossin said.

In 2018, head and neck cancer charity Beyond Five estimated 700 Australians would be diagnosed with an oropharyngeal cancer, with nearly 500 of those caused by HPV.

"The proportion of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV is increasing,” said oncologist and Beyond Five director, Dr Puma Sundaresan.

This type of cancer had previously been most associated with heavy smoking and alcohol consumption, but the RCPA said a rising number of patients have never or rarely consumed these.

The RCPA is calling on Australians to not be embarrassed to talk about the link between oral sex, HPV and cancer, to recognise the signs, and talk to their doctors. Over 80 percent of Australians will contract HPV at some point in their lives, but most people's immune systems will destroy it before it can cause harm.

Australians should get the HPV vaccine, the RCPA said. Image: AAP

Men, especially, are at risk of these oropharyngeal cancers -- making up two-thirds of diagnoses, but many not having received the HPV vaccination most women have.

"We've been aware of these cancers for 40 or 50 years now, but everyone is used to thinking of them in terms of gynaecological cancers, which is what has driven pap smears and HPV vaccines," Gupta told 10 daily.

The federal government began a school-based National HPV Vaccination Program in 2007, providing the Gardasil 9 vaccine to young girls, in a bid to tackle cervical cancer rates and genital warts.

HPV is the cause of almost all cervical cancers, and the Australian vaccination program has been credited with drastically reducing that cancer rate -- to the point where a 2018 International Papillomavirus Society study projected Australia could become the first country to virtually eradicate cervical cancer.

A volunteer is injected with the Gardasil vaccine in Sydney in 2006, ahead of its national schools launch. Image: AAP

However, the RCPA is concerned men and boys -- who were not included in the free program until 2013 -- may be at risk of contracting and spreading HPV, and later developing oropharyngeal cancers.