Recently I’ve heard and received questions concerning the HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9 is what’s most used in the U.S. currently). As my own daughter gets older, I’m sure I’ll hear the questions more and more because her and her friends will be getting closer to the recommended age. So, after offering an answer to a friend of a friend the other day, I thought I’d write my thoughts to offer more understanding.
I always start by telling people that I was always nervous about vaccines since my daughter was born over eight years ago. The large quantity of vaccines given all at once for babies terrified me. After lots of reading and discussions, our pediatrician worked with us on a delayed vaccine schedule, offering only two vaccines at a time instead of the recommended schedule (often give 4-6 at a time). She’s received all her vaccines up to this point, and as she’s gotten older I’ve become less nervous because I feel her body can handle more.
I start off by telling people that bit of background because I want them to realize that I’ve been in that mindset, worried about what’s being injected into my child. Worried about potential side effects. When the first HPV vaccines came out more than 10 years ago, I was skeptical about it being released so quickly. But, at that time, I just missed the age cut off for getting it. Go figure that not long after the vaccine and HPV became so public, I found out I had HPV. That was June 2007.
My HPV was discovered after a Pap test came back abnormal. Those same collected cells were tested for HPV, and there it was. At that time they didn’t really tell you what strand you had, just if it was high risk or low risk. Mine was high risk. For quite a few years I went back and forth for extra Pap tests, colposcopies, and biopsies in order to keep an eye on my cervical cell changes. At times I had perfectly normal results, then abnormal, and then normal again.
Then, in July 2014, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV. I’ve heard cervical cancer called the “easy cancer”. Please, don’t be fooled. Cervical cancer, like all cancer, SUCKS. No matter what your treatment, your body goes through a lot, as does your mind. For me, it was a radical hysterectomy the day before my 35th birthday followed by five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of external radiation. I’ve come to make many friends through cervical cancer groups, some of which have left this world because of their cancer, others who are living with cancer, and more that are struggling with the after effects of cancer. I’m now almost three years NED (no evidence of disease), but cancer changes your life in many ways that are endless.
The HPV vaccine was created to help keep future generations from getting some of the most problem causing strains of HPV. Some of these strains cause genital warts, but others have been known to cause 90% of HPV-related cancers, which include cancer of the cervix, vagina, anus, mouth and throat.
I’ve heard fears that the vaccine is “too new” or “hasn’t been studied enough”. Let me tell you that the HPV vaccine has been around for more than TEN years. I’ve heard others worried about stories of side effects they’ve seen on social media and the internet. To those people, I beg you to look at the sources of those stories and then to look for articles and case studies that have reputable medical sources. You’ll find that thousands upon thousands of doses of the HPV vaccine have been given with the only adverse effects being swelling and discomfort at the sight of injection. This is an “adverse” effect of just about all vaccines.
Another thing I’ve heard is that as a parent you’ll instead just teach your child about safe sex. Well, I certainly hope you will, because that’s an extremely important part of our job as parents. HOWEVER, safe sex does not fully protect against HPV. HPV is transferred via skin to skin contact. This means you can get it from intercourse, anal sex, oral sex, and sexual play. And condoms, as wonderful as they are, do not cover the entire genitalia, which means there’s often still skin touching skin, which means a chance of infecting a partner with HPV. And since often HPV doesn’t show symptoms, especially in men, you can’t be sure your partner has it.
I’m not looking to tell parents what to do, but what I hope they’ll do is educate themselves and talk about the vaccine with their pediatricians. If the HPV vaccine had been around for ten years when I was a preteen, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten cancer three years ago. Maybe I could have had more children like I’d hoped for. Maybe I wouldn’t be in menopause in my thirties. Maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about my cancer returning or my husband someday getting some kind of HPV-related cancer.
But maybe because of this vaccine, so many girls won’t have to go through what I did. Maybe we won’t have to lose more lives to HPV-related cancers.
There’s much more I could tell you, facts I could offer, but instead I leave you with this. August is National Immunization Awareness Month. When you go to the pediatrician to get your child their check-ups as school is starting, ask about the vaccine and if it’s right for your child (I know pre-existing conditions or allergies can be a factor). And even if it’s not time for your child, the more we learn and understand as parents, the better we can make decisions that can protect our children. If you could prevent your child’s chances of getting cancer someday, if even just a little bit, wouldn’t you?
For more information about the HPV vaccine:
If you have further questions concerning the HPV vaccine, please feel free to reach out to myself or the Cervivor organization. Please also follow the NJ Cervical Cancer & HPV Network and Cervivor on Facebook.