Many people think eradicating cancer is unattainable. But for cervical cancer, we are well on our way to doing just that.
Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of death in women in the U.S. But we are on the cusp of vanquishing this disease thanks to regular pap screening and a vaccine that protects women and men from developing the human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of nearly all cervical cancers.
In fact, over the last 40 years, the number of new cases and deaths from cervical cancers has plummeted. We are in the midst of Cervical Health Awareness Month, and you’ll likely be reading and hearing many news reports about how the disease that once claimed the lives of more women than any other disease is now largely preventable.
But an important element to the story of cervical cancer is that it is up to all of us to do the work of prevention. The FDA recently expanded approval of the HPV vaccine to include men and women ages 27 to 45.
The expanded age range for HPV vaccination is a great opportunity to prevent HPV infection and transmission in a larger proportion of the population. This will continue to move us closer to the goal of eradicating HPV infections and the cancers which result from them.
While expanding the vaccine to adults will go a long way to helping prevent HPV and cancer, the most effective time to vaccinate is well before a person becomes sexually active, usually around age 11 and 12.
Talking about sex with a pre-teen is hard enough, preparing for the fact that one day your child will be a sexually active adult can be terrifying. Pediatricians tell me that many parents believe that vaccinating their children against an STD will somehow encourage sexual behavior. While pediatricians in the community are doing a good job educating parents, the idea of vaccinating against an STD still doesn’t sit well with parents.
What is important to remember is that the vaccine isn’t a license to have sex, it is a protection against a very common and sometimes fatal disease later in your child’s life.
Some pediatricians have told me that parents will ask whether their children can wait until they are in their early 20s to be vaccinated. The short answer is, “Please don’t.” Younger children have a more robust immune response. In expanding the age range for the vaccine, the FDA noted that the vaccine is 88 percent effective in people over the age of 26, and 90 percent effective for younger people.
Parents also ask whether boys need to be vaccinated since they are not at risk of developing cervical cancer. To protect against the spread of HPV, both boys and girls should be vaccinated. Also, HPV increases the risk of cancers that do affect men, including penile, anal, and throat cancers.
Even if a woman and her partner have been vaccinated, she can still reduce her risk of developing cervical cancer by undergoing routine pelvic exams, including pap smears. If a pap smear is abnormal, meaning there is some evidence of cancerous or pre-cancerous cells, a gynecologic oncologist, in collaboration with a woman’s gynecologist, can provide the appropriate monitoring or procedure to reduce the likelihood of cervical cancer from developing.
As excellent as cancer treatments are these days, no treatment in the world can outperform prevention. And what we’ve learned from the past ten years is that the HPV vaccines, if delivered effectively, should be able to eradicate HPV-related diseases in our children’s lifetime.
No, we haven’t cured cervical cancer. But with the vaccine, we have a shot at preventing it.
Lisa N. Abaid is a gynecologic oncologist and co-director, Hoag Breast & Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Newport Beach, CA.
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