The Human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cancer in men and women and will infect 3 in 4 Canadians during their lifetimes. That’s something I never wanted to ever have to know. Now that I’m an HPV-related cancer survivor I know a lot of things I never wanted to know.
In 2008, when I was only 39 years old, my personal journey with cancer began. I remember it vividly: I found a lump on my neck…and a quick two weeks later I was diagnosed with HPV-related stage 3 oropharynx (throat) cancer, which had already spread to my lymph nodes (which—in case you don’t know—is bad).
Over the following two months, I underwent 35 rounds of radiation and 3 chemotherapy treatments at the same time. Most people in my situation can only tolerate two rounds of treatments. Because of my age, my doctors thought I could both endure and benefit from a third treatment, as well as radiation to my throat five times a week. It was a lot to endure, but my life was on the line (literally).
This treatment regimen was at times so unbearable that I couldn’t even bring myself to eat. I threw up every day. Doctors had to insert a tube in my stomach because the radiation treatments stopped me from being able to swallow. My weight dropped to 115 pounds from 155 pounds.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments saved my life but the week after I finished my 35th radiation treatment I lost my mom and very best friend to cancer. I had been feeling so poorly and had such a low blood cell count from treatment I wasn’t able to visit my mom in the hospital because of the risk going to see her posed to my own life.
Even now that I’ve beaten the cancer, I continue to live with treatment-related side effects. I lost partial hearing of high frequency sounds in both ears and have experienced significant bone loss. The life-saving radiation stopped my thyroid and salivary glands from working.
But those things are not what bothers me. I wish the HPV vaccine had been available when I was younger as getting vaccinated may have prevented having to go through what I experienced, having to lose what I lost. You know what really bugs me? That parents actually choose not to have their children vaccinated against HPV.
As an HPV-related cancer survivor, and having a horrific near death experience, I would not have hesitated to have my son vaccinated had the HPV vaccine been included in the school-based immunization program when he was young.
Despite lots of research showing that the vaccine is both effective and safe, immunization rates for girls across Ontario have stagnated. Why…? HPV infection is associated with almost all cases of cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women, as well as 90 per cent of anal cancers, 40 per cent of vaginal and vulvar cancers and 50 per cent of penile cancers.
As part of its HPV awareness campaign, the Canadian Cancer Society (Ontario Division) is calling on the Ontario government to equalize access to this vaccine by including boys in the existing school-based immunization program that currently only covers girls. A 2014 survey commissioned by the Society showed 86 per cent of Ontarians support government funding to vaccinate Grade 8 boys against HPV. Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Manitoba, Québec and Nova Scotia have already taken steps to extend comprehensive coverage to boys.
The HPV vaccine can prevent cancer in both males and females, is well researched, safe and most effective before exposure to the virus. So get your sons and daughters vaccinated. All doses must be completed for the best protection.
For more information about HPV and cancer you can visit cancer.ca/HPVvaccine or call the Society at 1-888-939-3333. To support equal access to this vaccine for boys through the Ontario school-based HPV immunization program please visit www.takeaction.cancer.ca.