scorecardA man who kept getting sick actually had throat cancer caused by HPV caught via oral sex. He refuses to feel ashamed.
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A man who kept getting sick actually had throat cancer caused by HPV caught via oral sex. He refuses to feel ashamed.

Amber Middleton   

A man who kept getting sick actually had throat cancer caused by HPV caught via oral sex. He refuses to feel ashamed.
LifeScience3 min read
Steve Bergman contracted HPV, which led to throat cancer.    Image courtesy of Steve Bergman
  • Steve Bergman was diagnosed with throat cancer aged 55 after he kept getting sick.
  • Human papillomavirus caused his throat cancer, which he'd caught from oral sex.

When Steve Bergman was diagnosed with throat cancer just before his 56th birthday, he was surprised.

He was healthy and a keen cyclist, and thought smoking, heavy drinking, and chemical exposure — none of which related to him — caused throat cancer, he told Metro.

But a series of tests after he was diagnosed with cancer revealed human papillomavirus caught through oral sex was the cause.

HPV is a group of more than 200 viruses which, according to the National Cancer Institute, more than 90% of sexually active men and 80% of sexually active women will be infected with during their lifetime.

Most HPVs don't cause any issues but some can cause cancer, which tends to affect the cervix, the throat, anus, penis, vagina, and vulva.

The CDC recommends that all children aged 11 to 12 get the HPV vaccine, and it is hoped vaccination will one day eradicate high-risk types of HPV.

Bergman kept getting sick before he was diagnosed with cancer

Before his cancer diagnosis in May 2015, Bergman had a string of colds that he couldn't get rid of, paired with pain down the side of his neck. A sore throat that doesn't go away is a symptom of throat cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

He was sent to a specialist who put a camera down his throat and found cancer on his tonsil.

"I was absolutely numb," he said.

A week later, Bergman went to the hospital thinking he was having a biopsy and tonsillectomy but woke up in an intensive care unit, he told Insider.

When the surgeon removed the tumor, it was larger than anticipated and he was worried Bergman wouldn't be able to breathe because of the swelling. So he fitted Bergman with a tracheostomy — a hole created at the front of the neck into the windpipe that helps the patient breathe.

Bergman's doctor was 'prudish' when he asked about HPV

Before his HPV diagnosis, and after some initial research into throat cancer, Bergman's wife asked his consultant if his cancer was linked to the virus, he told Metro.

The consultant was "prudish" in response and asked if they knew how people catch cancer associated with HPV.

70% of cases of oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the part of the throat behind the mouth, are linked to HPV, according to the National Cancer Institute. The remainder are caused by alcohol use, smoking, and chemical exposure.

Within weeks of coming out of the hospital after his surgery, tests confirmed Bergman's cancer was stage 4 and caused by HPV caught via sexual contact.

"It was actually a relief," he told Insider, because survival rates are longer than for those with non-HPV throat cancer.

Steve Bergman in hospital
Steve was in the ICU for 10 days.      Image courtesy of Steve Bergman

Bergman campaigned to raise awareness about HPV throughout his treatment, and is now in the process of creating a film about his cancer journey.

He told Insider he's had various "judgmental" reactions to the HPV diagnosis, including in the comments of some articles he's written and being told he "should have kept it in his trousers."

While research has shown that those with six or more oral-sex partners in their lifetime are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not practice oral sex, many people with the infection have only had a few oral-sexual partners, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

"I've lived my life to the full, I've not been over promiscuous," Bergman said.

Despite some negativity, he said the association between oral sex and his diagnosis has never been a source of shame for him, he told the i.

"There aren't very many men of my age who are prepared to talk about it, but I've always been very open and honest. I was once described as the pin-up boy of HPV" he said.

Bergman had two rounds of chemotherapy and a round of radiotherapy and was told he was cancer-free in 2021.

Now fully recovered from the physical effects of cancer, Bergman continues to campaign, including with the UK-based charity the Throat Cancer Foundation, where he is an ambassador, in the hope of seeing HPV cancer eradicated.