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Research: Circumcision might protect against prostate cancer

Researchers studying men in Seattle have found more evidence that sexual behaviors and cancer may be linked. In this case, they’re looking at prostate cancer.

The connection is through viruses and circumcision's role in possibly limiting some infections.

Certain viruses are known to trigger cancers. For example, you’ve probably heard about a vaccine that protects against HPV (human papillomavirus), and prevents cervical cancer in women. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV infections.

That same virus, which is sexually transmitted, or something similar, could be causing some men to get prostate cancer, later in life. That’s the suspicion of Dr. Jonathan Wright, a urological oncologist who specializes in bladder and prostate cancers at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Digging through the records

Wright figured that if the virus spreads through the genitals, then men who were circumcised should have fewer cases. Circumcision makes it slightly harder for viruses to penetrate the body, most likely because it toughens up the foreskin slightly.

Wright went digging into the records of thousands of Seattle-area men, in a database at the Hutch, to see if circumcised men are less likely to develop prostate cancer.

The answer was, “Yes.”

“Now, it certainly is not proving it,” says Wright. “I'm not calling for widespread circumcision of everyone to help prevent prostate cancer.”

Not the end of the story

He won't wade into the circumcision debate because lots of circumcised men still get prostate cancer. In fact, if you take a random group of men who were diagnosed with prostate cancer, you’ll find most of them have been circumcised.

The study is published in the journal Cancer, from the American Cancer Society, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

It’s fresh evidence that infections could be important for this cancer, too. Viruses have been implicated in stomach, liver, bladder and penile cancers.

Overall, the list of risk factors for prostate cancer is long and full of uncertainties. 

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.