Recently, Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross made headlines by discussing her diagnosis of anal cancer and her husband’s diagnosis of throat cancer, revealing that both had been related to the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
The move was brave, as the actress broke free from the stigma related to anal cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. More importantly, it was – I hope – inspirational.
HPV is something that doesn’t get nearly the publicity that it warrants. The sexually transmitted virus is associated with 34,000 cancers annually, with numbers rising every year, but it is completely preventable through a vaccine.
A vaccine for cancer. That alone should make it a regular headline grabber.
There are no other vaccines for cancer. But because the HPV vaccine should be administered prior to reaching sexual activity, the taboo against it is powerful. Many parents, unwilling or unable to discuss sexually transmitted diseases with children, opt to avoid or delay this potentially life-saving inoculation.
That is why I was heartened to hear Cross mention her own 12-year-old twin daughters.
“My girls don’t know it, but they’re up for their first shot the end of the school year,” she said.
That is a helpful message for parents to hear: You can protect your child against a majority of head/neck, cervical and anal cancers with a vaccine. Discussing it as a cancer prevention, rather than allowing STDs to solely drive the discussion, can help reframe the topic for parents.
This is where pediatricians can come in, guiding parents and giving them a chance to explore the topic and get educated – rather than just springing it on them during a well-child visit.
HPV-related cancer rates are on the rise, specifically because the people developing cancer contracting HPV decades ago, before a vaccine was available. Marcia Cross realized that stigma and misconceptions are standing in the way between a cancer prevention and an entire generation of young people, and she took the brave step of talking about it.
I hope parents and pediatricians do the same.
Brian Kim is a radiation oncologist, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Newport Beach, CA.
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