One of my patients called today. She had cervical cancer at age 27. I did her hysterectomy 19 years ago, and fortunately she’s a survivor. I also delivered her baby the year before her cancer diagnosis. Her daughter is now 20 and has an abnormal Pap smear.
My frantic patient said to me: “Doctor, I’d do anything to spare my daughter from going though what I had to do. What can I do to help her?”
We live in remarkable times, and the evening news is overwhelmingly bleak with attention to world events. But today, right now, I’d like to tell you about something very personal and wonderful. Actually, it’s incredible and it can make a difference in the lives of your children. For the first time ever, there is a vaccine against cancer and you can get it today. It’s called Gardasil.
Cervical cancer is a serious disease. It’s the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women. It’s caused by a common virus called HPV. How common is HPV infection? Astoundingly common, affecting over 20 million American men and women, and causing 11,000 cases of cancer, 1.3 million cases of pre-cancer and 1 million cases of genital warts yearly. In fact, over 50-75 percent of young adults have it acquired it by age 25, primarily through sexual intercourse. Of the many strains of the virus, some are also known to cause other diseases such as vaginal and anal cancer. All of these conditions that plague young women are now largely preventable through vaccination. The trick is to get the shot before being exposed to HPV, which means before beginning to have ANY sexual contact. Most girls have had sex of some kind by age 15, and most have had intercourse by age 18. Whether or not to have sex is a personal issue. You can help your children to make smart choices about sex, but HPV is a medical disease to discuss with your doctor. You can’t really control what your daughter will do, but you can protect her from cancer.
Girls have sex. Girls get HPV. Girls get cancer. You can prevent it.
“So how big is this?” you may be asking. Well, it’s probably the biggest medical advance of the decade.
Here are the facts:
The vaccine is called Gardasil, and requires three injections over six months. It’s recommended for ALL girls and women from 9-26, and should be a part of the usual childhood vaccination panel for girls, though it may be given later. It’s also good for women who’ve already begun to have sex, acquired HPV and had abnormal PAP smears or genital warts, or even “pre-cancer” of the cervix. It won’t cure HPV strains that have already been acquired, but will prevent getting the four most common and dangerous types. It will prevent over 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts. Annual Pap smears are still necessary. Other than minor muscle pain at from the shot, there are no known side effects. We don’t know yet if the protection is lifelong, or if you might need a booster in years to come.
So what’s a mom to do? If “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” then what’s the best prevention? Clearly abstinence is preventive. But if your daughter will ever have sex with anyone she’ll probably get HPV and be at risk for cervical cancer. Even if in her whole life, she only has sex with her one true love, she’ll probably catch it because most boys and men already will have acquired HPV! It’s certainly true that the more partners she might have and the earlier she begins to have sexual contact, the more likely all of this becomes. So for lots of health reasons, including unwanted pregnancies and STD’s, it’s best to abstain as long as possible, and to limit the number of lifetime sex partners. But this doesn’t fix the problem. Unless we vaccinate all young girls, this epidemic, which affects the lives of thousands of women each year, will not be eradicated.
Is there a risk that giving the vaccine to your teenager will encourage her to have more sex? Absolutely not! Teenagers have sex with and without condoms, birth control pills, forethought or the knowledge of their parents. They’ll do it anyway, ‘cause that’s what they do. If you don’t want them to have sex, talk to them about it and hope for the best. Educate them on how to have the safest sex possible, and when necessary help them with birth control methods.
But after you talk, please protect your daughters from this devastating disease and call your doctor for the vaccine! Call your pediatrician, family doctor or gynecologist today, and ask for the Gardasil vaccine.