Stewart Lyman, Ph.D.
Survivor Ambassador, Head and Neck Cancer Alliance
Nearly 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and about 600,000 will die from the disease. Overall U.S. cancer deaths have been decreasing over the past 25 years or so, due largely to a decline in smoking, better methods for early detection of certain cancers (e.g., colon), and more effective therapies.
The majority of cancers still cannot be prevented, but some can: those caused by human papillomaviruses (HPV). As a cancer survivor and cancer researcher, take it from me: cancer prevention is always preferable to cancer treatment.
There are many strains of HPV (more than 150 types), but only a few of them (types 16 and 18) are responsible for the majority of HPV cancers.
These viruses are surprisingly widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 79 million Americans have been infected by HPV. About 14 million more Americans will be infected this year.
HPV is far and away the most common sexually transmitted infection, and about 80 percent of sexually active people will become infected with the virus at some point in their lives. Most people successfully fight off the virus, but those who can’t are at risk of developing a number of different cancers. These include oropharyngeal cancers, those that affect the structures of the throat like the tonsils and the base of the tongue.
The incidence of HPV-positive throat cancers in the United States increased by 225 percent from 1988 to 2004, and it’s still climbing. During the same time, the incidence of HPV-negative throat cancers dropped by 50 percent. But preventing viral infections from taking hold can eliminate HPV as a cause of human cancers.
As such, the development of safe and effective vaccines against HPV has been a major health breakthrough. The HPV vaccine is given as a series of either two or three shots, and must be given before an individual is infected with HPV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends immunizing both girls and boys starting at age 11 or 12. If an individual cannot be infected by HPV, the possibility of being diagnosed with HPV-related cancer is virtually eliminated.
I’m sharing this information for one simple reason: I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did. Parents, please talk to your pediatrician and get both your boys and girls vaccinated against HPV. While you may never know for sure, you may very well save their lives.