By Ashlyn Seeley Everett, M.D., radiation oncologist at Alliance Cancer Care
Vaccines work. My generation and generations to come will not know the symptoms or effects of polio, measles, mumps, or smallpox. These viruses are now essentially eradicated due to widespread vaccination. Recent news demonstrated that vaccines are also preventing cancer, by preventing cancer-causing strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are more than 100 types of HPV, but cancer-causing HPV infections are most notably linked to throat cancer, penile cancer, and cervical cancer. Non-cancer-causing HPV infections are the cause of warts in the skin.
The first HPV vaccine was approved in 2006 for females ages 9-26 and offered protection against 4 strains of HPV. Since then, the vaccine has expanded to include protection against 9 strains of HPV and is now recommended for MALES AND FEMALES ages 9-45. The CDC recommends that 11-12-year-olds receive two doses of the vaccine 6-12 months apart. Older patients may receive a third dose of the vaccine.
The month of January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the world and is the third most common gynecologic cancer in the United States. In Alabama, we have a high rate of cervical cancer in women compared to the rest of the country, with 1 in 10,000 women being diagnosed. Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women ages 35-45 but can be found earlier or later in life. The most common symptoms include bleeding between menstrual cycles, bleeding after menopause, bleeding with sex, pain with sex, or unexplained pelvic pain.
Screening for cervical cancer includes a Pap smear, often with HPV testing. Abnormal tests require additional workup. If cancer is found, treatment depends on the stage of the cervical tumor. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy may be used. A unique form of radiation, brachytherapy, is often used for curative cervical cancer treatments.
Cervical cancer is preventable. Over 95% of cervical cancers are related to HPV infections and are largely preventable with HPV vaccination. Researchers from the United Kingdom recently reported that cervical cancer rates declined by 87% for patients vaccinated at 12-13 years of age. Vaccination also prevents pre-cancerous changes in the cervix, which often require surgical intervention. The authors of the research study concluded, “HPV immunization has successfully almost eliminated cervical cancer in women.” We have a chance to cure cervical cancer – by prevention.
If you or a family member have not yet been vaccinated for HPV, talk with your doctor about the possibility of vaccination to reduce the risk of cancer.