[If you do not see a blue menu bar on the right, click here. You are at "The Issues: Cancer & Smegma"]

Besides fathers wanting their sons to look like them, one of the biggest "reasons" in the last half of the 20th Century for performing circumcision is cancer prevention. There were a few studies done in which the conclusion was that non-circumcised males get cancer of the penis more often than their circumcised counterparts. Another study was based on the idea that Jewish wives had a lower rate of cervical cancer than wives of intact men and/or Muslim women. This conclusion was based solely on the fact that the Muslims have their boys circumcised at puberty, rather than at birth. ...Definitely a leap in logic. "Cancer of the penis 'is almost unheard of in circumcised Jews.' 'The Jew, ritually circumcised on the eighth day of life, rarely develps penile cancer whereas the Moslem, circumcised between the third and fourteenth years, frequently sufferes from the affliction.' "5. Additionally, as doctors began to add to their list of reasons for circumcision, the lines were sometimes blurred (intentionally, and not always not by those who themselves had religious ties or prejudices) between medical and religious issues as is seen here: "The prepuce is an important factor in the production of phthisis [tuberculosis]. This can be proven by the immunity of the Jewish race from tubercular affections." [S.G.A. Brown. A Plea for Circumcision. Medical World 1897;15:124-125.]

Before I go on, I should explain what smegma is. To look at, it is a white, waxy, pasty substance found between the foreskin and head of the penis, and between the clitoral hood and clitoris and the inner and outer labia. It serves to keep the mucous membranes from drying out and consists of lubrication and sloughed skin cells. Adults produce more of it than children, and females more than males. In June, 2006, a curious individual- PZ Myers, biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris-. did an analysis on just what smegma (and incidentally also analyzed ear wax!) consists of and came up with this:

* Cholesterol and cholesterol esters: 18%

* Fatty acids: 71%

Another historic study which maligned smegma was probably the most repeated, produced by a man named Abraham L. Wolbarst. (Wolbarst, AL. Circumcision and penile cancer. Lancet 1932 Jan 16: 1(5655): 150-3) He first theorized a link between foreskins and cancer in 1926 (Wolbarst AL, Is circumcision a prophylactic against penis cancer? Cancer 1926 Jul:3(4):301-10) but it seems that Wolbarst did not base his findings in this, or his more famous 1932 study on actual evidence but on sterotypes. Not ironically, in 1914, he promoted circumcision as a cure for epilepsy, masturbation, and tuberculosis (after pulishing a manifesto demanding the compulsory circumcision of all non-Jewish children in America, [Wolbarst AL. Universal circumcision as a sanitary measure. JAMA 1914 Jan 10;62(2):92-7.]): "It is generally accepted that irritation derived from a tight prepuce may be followed by nervous phenomena, among these being convulsions and outbreaks resembling epilepsy. It is therefore not at all improbable that in many infants who die in convulsions, the real cause of death is a long or tight prepuce. The foreskin is a frequent factor in the causation of masturbation... Circumcision offers a diminished tendancy to masturbation, nocturnal pollutions, convulsions and other nervous results of local irritation. It is the moral duty of every physician to encourage circumcision in the young." - A.L. Wolbarst, MD. "Universal Circumcision as a Sanitary Measure." Journal of the American Medical Association, (1914) Vol.62. pp.92-97. The British Medical Journal is quoted in 1996 as saying, "Wolbarst invented this myth and was directly responsible for its proliferation; he based it on unverifiable anecdotes, ethnocentric stereotypes, a faulty understanding of human anatomy and physiology, a misunderstanding of the distinction between association and cause, and a unbridled missionary zeal. It was not based on valid scientific and epidemiological research."

In 1947, another study ( Plaut A, Kohn-Speyer AC (1947) The carcinogenic action of smegma. Science 105(2728):391-392 ) attempted to prove that smegma caused cancer, by putting horse smegma into the cervixes of mice. (Remember that the 1940's and '50's were the decades that cancer was the big fear, so it isn't surprising to see a study being done to prove circumcision could reduce genital cancers.) Apparently, this is because horses have a lot of smegma to "get", and because mice are usually used for experiments due to their rapid "turn-over rate" and the the fact that, now, all lab mice are decended from one very inbred mouse (okay at least two) from the mid-twentieth century and therefore identical, in order to do reliable comparisons, where genetic variance is not a factor. [To elaborate on what I've written above and why mice are used in experiments involving humans when they are not the same creatures, Richard Twyman, in an article intitled "Model organisms: The mouse" says, "The mouse is closely related to humans so most human genes have functional mouse counterparts and the genome is organised in a very similar manner".]

"Smegma is best obtained from dead horses in rendering plants or from anesthetized animals in a department of veterinary surgery." Plaut A, Kohn-Speyer AC (1947) The carcinogenic action of smegma. Science 105(2728):391-392.

"There was no significant difference in the survival rates of treated and control mice up to the 400th day of life: 85 and 88 per cent, respectively, after 200 days; 74 and 80 percent after 300 days; 65 and 57 percent after 400 days. After 500 days, 47 percent of those treated with smegma were alive as compared with 30 percent of the controls. From the 600th day on, there was a marked difference (26 and 6 percent, respectively), and on the 700th day, the survival rates were 12 and 1½ per cent." -Plaut A, Kohn-Speyer AC (1947) The carcinogenic action of smegma. Science 105(2728):391-392.

If you read the above quotes from The carcinogenic action of smegma., it shows that the "smegmated mice" were alive and kickin' - with the numbers going up for "smegmated" and down for "control", until after nearly 2 years, the rate of alive smegmated and dead controls was 8 times as many.

In the early 1960's, a number of studies were put out regarding smemga and cancer - this time in humans. One of these was REID BL. CANCER OF THE CERVIX UTERI: REVIEW OF CAUSAL FACTORS WITH AN HYPOTHESIS AS TO ITS ORIGIN. Medical Journal of Australia. 1965 Mar 13;48:375-83. [PubMed - OLDMEDLINE for Pre1966]. Another was D. Giovinda Reddy: I.K.S.M. Baruah. "Carcinogenic Action of Human Smegma." Archives of Pathology 1963;75:414-420. who concluded, "Our observations and those of the earlier workers reveal that the changes produced in experimental mice with human smegma are not consistent and are even contradictory...The conviction that human smegma is a carcinogen could not be substantiated as no malignant changes occurred in the genital mucous membrane and the skin of 29 male and 16 female Swiss mice (Rockefeller Foundation Laboratory strain) subjected to the application of fresh human smegma for a period of 16 months."

In the late-twentieth century, it was found that cervical cancer is caused by the Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV. Risk factors include a history of multiple sexual partners, first sexual experience at a young age, smoking, and being infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). - (See http://www.cdc.gov/ for more information. )

The American Cancer Society sent a letter in 1996 to the American Academy of Pediatrics saying, "Research suggesting a pattern in the circumcision status of partners of women with cervical cancer is methodologically flawed, outdated, and has not been taken seriously in the medical community for decades. Penile cancer rates in countries which do not practice circumcision are lower than those found in the United States. Fatalities caused by circumcision accidents may approximate the mortality rate from penile cancer."

However, their website, Cancer.org, has an October, 2005 update, with the vague statement, Uncircumcised men are thought to be more likely to harbor the virus, and nothing further to back up this opinion. (Notice that they did not say "are more likely" but merely "are thought to be more likely", which I guess is actually true, when you figure that this is a stereotype that has grown over the years about men with their whole penis!) This brings us nicely into the myth that foreskins harbor sexually transmitted diseases. (See the "STD" section - under "The Issues" in the blue menu bar.)

In November, 2002, Science News, a weekly magazine, published an article titled Virus Stopper: Vaccine could prevent most cervical cancers about a new vaccine for cervical cancer. In the Nov. 21 New England Journal of Medicine, a team of U.S. scientists reports that a vaccine fashioned from an HPV protein protects women from long-term viral infections that can lead to cervical cancer.This brings us nicely into the myth that foreskins harbor sexually transmitted diseases.

I'll leave you with this quote by Frederick Hodges, DPhil., a medical historian who has collected approximately 6,000 articles on circumcision which detail its history in the U.S. "In this country," he explains, "there is a common thread running throughout circumcision advocacy. It turns out that whatever disease is the focus of national attention, in whatever given time period, the circumcision advocates will use that disease as an excuse for circumcision. In the 1940's, when venereal disease was the focus of national attention, circumcision advocates said that circumcision would prevent and cure venereal disease. In the 1950's and '60's, when cancer was the great fear of the American public, naturally circumcision was used as a cure and a preventative of cancer. In the late 1980's and the 1990's, when AIDS and HIV has become a tremendous problem, the circumcision advocates have advocated circumcision as a way to reduce the risks."