Myth or Fact? You Can Get Cancer From Sex

By David McLay

3 min read

Most of us grew up hearing some myths and misinformation about sex. I’ve been grown up for some time, but I recently came across a new one: You can get cancer from sex. Both cancer and sex are too important to leave shrouded in myth, so I investigated. In this series of posts, we will talk about this claim for different cancers that affect “the world down there.” First up, cervical cancer. 

Before we dive in, let’s review some reproductive anatomy. The cervix is the small opening between the vagina and the uterus.

Cervical cancer is the 4th most common reproductive cancer in Canadian women, and estimated 1,350 new cases will emerge in 2020. The good news is that, if caught early, prognosis is favourable. Almost three quarters (72%) of all people with cervical cancer are alive after five years. 

Cervical cancer and a link to sex?

Like other kinds of cancer, the chance of being diagnosed with cervical cancer depends on different factors. Some factors that have been linked to a higher chance of cervical cancer include HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, smoking, giving birth many times, having HIV, using oral contraceptives (the birth control pill), and sexual activity. Yep, having more sex has been linked to a higher chance of cervical cancer. But before getting too worried, keep reading. 

Blame it on HPV

HPV, the virus that causes warts, plays a role in cervical cancer. The virus is involved in the majority of cases of cervical cancer, but only a very, very small proportion of all HPV infections go on to a case of cancer.

HPV passes through skin-to-skin contact, and it is estimated that more than 7 out of 10 sexually active adults in Canada will have an HPV infection at some point. Experts think that HPV is the reason why more sexual activity is also linked to a higher chance of cervical cancer. It’s not that sex itself causes cervical cancer but rather that more sexual activity means more chances for HPV infection. 

No symptoms, no problem? No way!

Early stages of cervical cancer often have no signs or symptoms. Later stages may have symptoms that are similar to symptoms of other conditions, so it is definitely worth bringing them to your doctor’s attention.

You should talk to your doctor if you have:

  • Unexpected bleeding from the vagina (such as between periods, after menopause, or after sexual intercourse)
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • increased or smelly discharge from the vagina

The power of Pap tests

Symptoms are unreliable, but fortunately the Pap test has shown to be effective at identifying the early signs of cervical cancer. Studies show that screening is linked to drops in new diagnoses of invasive cancer and even death. 

Provinces and territories have their own screening program, with Pap tests generally being recommended every 1 to 3 years. Screening is not recommended under the age of 21, and over the age of 65 to 70 (if consistent screening has occurred in the past). You can talk to your family doctor about what’s right for you. 

Our friends over at the Canadian Cancer Society have extensive info on cervical cancer.

So, myth or fact? It seems the answer in the case of cervical cancer is more about the presence of HPV than sex itself. Phew! It goes without saying that an open dialogue with your doctor is the best way to get the facts about cervical cancer and get the right tests.

We’ll cover prostate cancer next, but in the meantime, share a funny myth you’ve heard about sex.

*While published statistics are quoted verbatim, all other gendered terminology in this post refers to biological sex only and is not intended to be exhaustive or exclusionary.

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