The link between cancer and viral STIs

It’s relatively well-known that many sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia can be treated quite easily with a course of antibiotics. In fact, although incurable now, even HIV is a manageable condition with the advent of antiretrovirals (ARVs). However, cancer is not as easy a condition to treat and manage due to its volatility and ability to metastasise and spread.

Although not a common occurrence, STIs have been linked to different forms of cancer, and most people are unaware of this. Although this happens rarely, it is a risk that more people should become aware of when considering their sexual health and the choices they make.

It must be said that not all cases of cancer are caused by these viruses. For example, hepatitis viruses are only sometimes associated with liver cancer, but alcohol abuse causes a much bigger threat of it developing. These viruses play a role in these cancers developing, but there are other contributing factors. It’s an interplay of viruses and other factors that may result in an individual developing cancer (or not).

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is untreatable but manageable and often asymptomatic. Hepatitis B or C can be treated or managed very well. Most of those infected with these viruses should not have their lifespan or long-term quality of life affected. Unfortunately, not everyone will be so lucky. A small percentage of people at the receiving end of STI transmission will develop a form of cancer because of their infection.

Some examples of how this can take place:

  • Some high-risk strains of HPV can cause cancer in both men and women.  In women, it can cause cervical cancer, and in men, it can result in penile cancer. Both sexes are at risk of mouth, throat and anal cancer with certain types of HPV transmission
  • Viral hepatitis B or C infection usually clears for those who get it, but it can have a detrimental impact on the liver for some. The onslaught suffered by the liver from these infections can sometimes result in the liver developing a form of cancer, which could be terminal.  Other factors could have a similar effect though
  • HIV-positive persons who do not adhere to ARV regimes as they should can be at risk of developing several types of rare cancers because their bodies become more vulnerable from developing immunodeficiency

So, what can be done to prevent these infections, other than abstinence and using condoms and water-based lubricants?

Both hepatitis B and many forms (not all) of HPV can be avoided by getting a vaccine currently being rolled-out in South Africa, which most people are also unaware of.

The scourge of cancer due to STIs can be minimised by circulating more awareness of how these two can be connected and what resources and prevention methods can be implemented to avoid them. Testing for hepatitis B virus /hepatitis C virus is available in the private sector, but is unfortunately not yet available from most primary healthcare facilities.

Bruce J. Little is the Content Creator for Anova Health Institute

June 5 is International Cancer Survivor Day






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