There are certain types of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that can increase your risk of developing several cancer types.
What is an STD?
STDs or STIs are infections that transmit from one person to another during sexual contact. You may get an STD through anal, vaginal or oral sex. Depending on the STD, it may be transmitted through:
- Vaginal fluids
- Skin-to-skin contact
In general, STDs are prevalent. Some of the most common STDs include chlamydia, herpes and HPV. Not all STDs cause symptoms, so it is possible to have STD without knowing it. In many cases, a test is the only way to know for sure if you have STD.
Which STDs Cause Cancer?
Following are the most common types of STDs that are known to cause cancer.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Once high-risk HPV infects cells, it interferes with how these cells communicate with one another, causing infected cells to multiply uncontrollably. These infected cells are commonly recognized and controlled by the immune system. However, sometimes the infected cells remain and continue to grow, eventually forming an area of precancerous cells that, if not treated on time, can become cancerous. Research has found that it can take 10 to 20 years, or even longer, for HPV-infected cervical cells to develop into a cancerous tumor.
Some HPV infections can lead to the following types of cancer in women:
Cervical cancer: Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Routine screening can prevent most cervical cancers by allowing your doctor to find and remove precancerous cells before they develop into cancer.
Oropharyngeal cancers: Most of these cancers, which develop in the throat (usually the tonsils or the back of the tongue), are caused by HPV. The number of new cases is increasing each year. Oropharyngeal cancers are now the most common HPV-related cancer worldwide.
Penile cancer: Most penile cancers (over 60%) are caused by HPV. As it is a rare type of cancer, not all men with penile cancer that has spread to nearby lymph nodes receive recommended treatments that could improve their survival.
Vaginal cancer: Most vaginal cancers (75%) are caused by HPV. Different types of treatment are available for patients with vaginal cancer. Three types of standard treatment are used for the treatment of vaginal cancer, these are Surgery, Radiation therapy, and Chemotherapy. New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.These are Immunotherapy
Vulvar cancer: Most vulvar cancers (70%) are caused by HPV. Three types of standard treatment are used for the treatment of Vulvar cancer.These are Surgery, Radiation therapy, and Chemotherapy. New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.These are Immunotherapy
Anal cancer: Over 90% of anal cancers are caused by HPV. The number of new cases and deaths from anal cancer is increasing yearly. Anal cancer is nearly twice as common in women as in men. Learn more about anal cancer statistics.
Men with HPV can be at risk of developing penile cancer. Both women and men can be at risk of anal and throat cancer. HPV can be spread by having the following types of sexual contact with someone who is infected with the virus:
- Intimate skin-to-skin contact
- Vaginal sex
- Anal sex
- Oral sex
Symptoms of HPV
Someone infected with HPV may not experience any symptoms at all but may show signs of the following:
- Genital warts (flat lesions or cauliflower-like bumps that can occur on the vulva or in the vagina)
- Common warts (rough raised bumps on the hands or fingers)
- Plantar warts (hard bumps that typically appear on the balls of the feet or heels)
- Flat warts (flat-topped and slightly raised lesions usually appear on the face)
Hepatitis B (HBV)
HBV is a type of liver infection. It can cause liver cancer. Hepatitis B is spread through blood and other bodily fluids through sexual contact. HBV is more likely to cause symptoms. Most adults recover from HBV within a few months. However, there is still the risk of chronic HBV, and people with chronic HBV are at an increased risk of developing liver cancer.
Symptoms of Hepatitis B
HBV symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Clay-colored stool
- Joint pain
Hepatitis C (HCV)
HCV is a liver infection. It can cause liver cancer. HCV is spread by blood through sexual contact. HCV infections might be linked to other cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C
Many people who have HCV are unaware because it doesn’t typically present symptoms until the virus damages the liver causing the following symptoms:
- Bleeding or bruising easily
- Poor appetite
- Dark-colored urine
- Itchy skin
- Fluid buildup in the abdomen
- Leg swelling
- Unexplained weight loss
- Slurred speech
- Spider-like blood vessels on the skin
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
HIV weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight infections and disease. While HIV isn’t directly linked to cancer, it can increase the risk of developing many types of cancers since someone with HIV will have a compromised immune system.
The following types of cancers can be associated with HIV infection:
- Anal cancer
- Hodgkin diseases
- Melanoma skin cancer
- Liver cancer
- Lung cancer
- Mouth and throat cancers
- Testicular cancer
- Squamous cell and basal cell skin cancers
- Symptoms of HIV
The only way to know for sure if you have been infected with HIV is to get tested. However, someone with HIV may have the following symptoms in its beginning stages:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
How to protect yourself from STDs
The most effective way to protect yourself from STDs is to avoid vaginal, anal or oral sex. Having fewer partners may also help reduce your chance of an STD.
Other essential actions you may take to have a healthy sex life while protecting yourself and your partner include:
Use condoms during vaginal, anal and oral sex: Condoms protect you from STDs by preventing contact with bodily fluids that may transmit STDs, including HIV and HBV. They are also highly effective at preventing HPV. However, since HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, some risk of transmission remains because condoms don’t cover 100 per cent of the genital skin.
Speak with your doctor about vaccines for HPV and HBV: Vaccines are a powerful tool to protect you from viruses that may lead to cancer. Ask your doctor whether you may benefit from a vaccine.
Get tested for HIV and HBV: Simple tests may show your status and help you know if you need to start treatment. Ask your partner about their status, too.
Get screened for cervical cancer: Screenings may detect precancerous lesions so that these may be removed—and the risk of more invasive cancer may be reduced. How often you should be screened for cervical cancer depends on your age and other factors. Pap smears typically start at age 21 and should continue every three years if expected results. Ask your doctor about testing for cervical cancer and HPV as well.
HPV Vaccination: Preventing HPV Infection
The HPV vaccine Gardasil 9® protects against infection from nine HPV types: the two low-risk HPV types that cause most genital warts, plus the seven high-risk HPV types that cause most HPV-related cancers.
Who should get the HPV vaccine?
The HPV vaccine series is recommended for girls and boys at the age of 11 or 12, and the series can be started at age 9. Males and females need to get vaccinated because both men and women can develop cancers of the mouth and throat, anal cancers, and genital warts. Women are also at risk for cervical cancer and men for penile cancer. Vaccination can also reduce the spread of HPV, which causes cancer in other people.
Can Vaccinations Stop an STD?
Vaccinations are available for HBV, HCV and HPV; however, if you have already been diagnosed with HBV, HCV or HPV, vaccination will not protect against them. There is currently no vaccination for HIV; however, many treatments are available to help patients manage their condition. If you suspect you have contracted an STD or want to learn more about vaccinations against STDs, speak to your doctor about it.
Take responsibility for your health when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases. Be open and talk honestly with your partner about how to protect each other from STDs. Consult with your doctor to prevent, detect and treat STDs before they lead to cancer.