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HPV stands for Human Papilloma Virus. It is the most common virus that spreads via sexual contact. It’s estimated that almost 80 million Americans have it, and in general, they were infected early in their lives, during their teens or twenties.
It’s important to note that HPV isn’t just one virus – it is a family of different viruses, some of which are associated with cancer. However, being infected with HPV will not cause cancer; in fact, most people do not develop cancer. But it can start a process that becomes cancer. Fortunately, that process takes years, which means the chances we can catch it early are really good.
HPV infection is associated with both cancer- and noncancer-related conditions. Cervical and vulvar cancers in women are linked to a history of HPV, and certain forms of cancer that develop in the head and neck - including throat, base of tongue, and tonsils. HPV can also cause annoying problems, including genital warts.
As an oncologist, I find it really exciting to know that there is a vaccine against HPV, which can potentially prevent the occurrence of HPV-associated cancers -- better than “potentially” actually. The data suggest it does.
Among younger people, the vaccine is lowering HPV infection rates. Now we have one study that looked at the combined experience in three randomized trials of vaccine versus placebo. The findings show that when compared to historical controls, the incidence of high-grade cervical disease and surgeries on the cervix was reduced by 98 percent. This is a striking finding lending real world data to the potential impact of this vaccination on cancer. Given these findings, as both a physician and a parent of two girls and one boy, I would recommend anyone up to the age of 26 be vaccinated.
For older people, data also suggest there are still benefits from vaccination. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend men and women between 27 and 45 consider vaccination after talking it over with their doctors. Even if someone already has a strain of HPV, the vaccine could prevent infection with different strains, including HPV types that are linked to cancer risk.
Getting vaccinated is especially important for cancer survivors who are treated with curative intent, and those who remain in remission after treatment. Unfortunately, some data in the adolescent and young adult community of people who survived cancer show that vaccination rates – both starting the vaccine series and completing them– are lower than they should be.
For those with cancer, it’s important to think about preventing an HPV-related cancer based on where you are with your cancer, and your treatment. It may make the most sense to consider vaccination if and when you are in remission. If the situation is more complicated, your oncologist should be able to work with you to answer the question about whether you should get vaccinated, and when.
If I can see a world where no one is diagnosed with cervical cancer, or any other HPV-related cancer, it will be incredible. Some of the most difficult cases I have treated have been women with cervical cancer, and who ultimately died of their disease. We can prevent that from happening. The progress we have seen with the vaccine is amazing and I think we in the medical field have an important message that has to be delivered.
Talk with your doctor about HPV and the vaccine. Visit our website for more information on the Lifespan Cancer Institute.
Dr. Don Dizon is a medical oncologist and director of women’s cancers at the Lifespan Cancer Institute. He specializes in women’s cancers and his research focuses on novel treatments and issues related to survivorship. He writes an online column for the journal The Oncologist and the American Society of Clinical Oncology where he discusses what it is like to be an oncologist. He is also an associate professor of medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.