Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Nearly a year after Desperate Housewives actress Marcia Cross disclosed that she’d undergone treatment for anal cancer, she has revealed that the disease was likely caused by the same strain of human papillomavirus – or HPV – that led to her husband’s throat cancer.
It’s a deeply personal thing to share – a medical issue, for one thing, with sexual undertones concerning a form of sex often seen as unmentionable. So was it too personal? Or bracingly forthright? The answer is clear.
You are reading this commentary today about anal cancer – its causes and transmission, its increasing incidence – and the need for an HPV vaccine for young people, because in what can only be described as a generous act, Marcia Cross used her celebrity to warn you.
Indeed, Cross confronted the discomfort head-on in a Wednesday interview with CBS’s Dr. Jon LaPook, where she made her revelation. Viewers were warned that some words during the interview might make people uncomfortable.
“I know that there are people who are ashamed,” she told LaPook. “You have cancer. Do you have to then also feel ashamed like you did something bad because it took up residence in your anus?”
Cross told LaPook she has fully embraced the word “anus” and dubbed the group of girlfriends who rallied around her during her illness her “Anal Angels.”
By being so matter-of-fact, Cross is helping reduce the shame that many people – too often women – feel around both anal cancer and sex in general. And, such candor can help people feel more comfortable discussing sexual health, and potentially serious symptoms, with their doctors.
It also shows that sex-related cancers can affect far more than the young and promiscuous, and help debunk the idea that sexually transmitted infections (STI) are “punishments” for bad behavior or affect only specific groups of people.
Cross also said she hopes to raise awareness of anal cancer’s potential causes. When her husband, Tom Mahoney, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009, neither knew that the type of HPV that likely triggered his condition could also lead to anal cancer, as well as other types of cancer.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that HPV – which is spread by intimate skin-to-skin contact, including sexual intercourse – causes more than 90% percent of anal and cervical cancers, in addition to vaginal and vulvar cancers, penile cancer, and throat cancer. Each year, about 42,700 new cases of cancer are found in parts of the body where HPV exists.
It’s why the CDC recommends that adolescent children receive the HPV vaccine, which can prevent such cancers. Cross told CBS that her 12-year-old twin daughters will receive their first shot soon.
Cross took a chance here: Hearing about celebrity medical conditions can have a bit of an unsavory feel. These are people we look to for their glamour, for entertainment and for their ability to help us escape from the real world.
Do we really want such a cold slap of reality about their bodily functions? Consider, though: We’re undeniably living at a time when celebrity news is the only news many people get, or pay attention to. When celebrities talk, people listen, which Cross surely considered.
When Michael Douglas blamed his throat cancer on oral sex and HPV, it significantly increased awareness of the risks of the virus for men and boys at a time when many thought it was a virus linked more to female promiscuity.
When Chrissy Teigen talked openly about her postpartum depression, many fans came forward to thank her for helping them realize that what they were feeling had a name – and that they were not alone.
Cross knows that her message has more power than most. As she told CBS, Bree Van de Kamp, the TV character that had made her famous, “would not have told a soul,.”.
How many like Bree are out there? “Many, many, many people,” Cross said. “It breaks my heart.”