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When parents ask me why their child needs the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, my answer is always “Cancer ... It prevents CANCER. So, let’s give it today.”
While many people who acquire HPV will successfully fight off the virus on their own, those who don’t are at risk for developing HPV-related cancers. In women, HPV can lead to cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers; in men, penile cancer. In both sexes, HPV can cause anal or head and neck cancers.
Unfortunately, the pervasive myths and misunderstandings about HPV and the vaccine that protects against it sometimes prevent parents from listening to my message. I remember the first time a parent declined the HPV vaccine for their pre-teen, telling me “Oh no, no – not that one.” I assured her it is an important, safe vaccine that prevents HPV-related cancers. Naively, I thought the cancer prevention argument, combined with the influence of my blue scrubs and RN badge, would convince her. Instead, with a tightly furrowed brow, she leaned closer to me and whispered, “We’re not ready for that yet.”
On one level, I empathized with this mom and understood why she took offense at my suggestion. Since the HPV vaccine protects against a sexually transmitted infection (STI), many assume it’s not necessary until their child is sexually active. And “that” is something the majority of parents of pre-teens (understandably!) dread discussing with their kids.
To add insult to injury, STIs are traditionally portrayed as the purview of the promiscuous and careless. So, if it were true that only sexually prolific people needed the HPV vaccine, that parent of a pre-teen child would be completely justified in taking offense at my recommendation. But in fact, HPV is the norm, not the exception.
In a group of five adults, chances are four of them will be infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime. More importantly, giving the vaccine at 11 – 12 years of age has absolutely nothing to do with sex. It’s simply the age at which our bodies mount the greatest immune response. In other words, the HPV vaccine is most effective at preventing HPV-related cancers when given at 11 – 12 years of age.
I still remember the first time a friend called me after receiving news from her doctor of an abnormal, “bad” pap smear. As she expounded on her concerns – what does this mean? Do I have cancer – or will I? – I tried to focus my own thoughts despite the growing dread in the pit of my stomach. Somehow, when I spoke, my voice was calm, I empathized with her anxieties, and promised we’d figure out what this meant.
You see, I wasn’t a nurse at the time – nowhere close. I was a college student at a small liberal arts school and a politics major with no plans for entering the medical field. Once I began pursuing a nursing career, the frequency of medical advice questions from friends, family and acquaintances increased, but this call, and others like it, always stick out in my mind.
Fear of a cancer diagnosis is something we don’t think of as being a routine concern until we’re much older. Yet, an abnormal pap smear is not an abnormal experience for many women. For anyone who’s not a cytology expert, there’s the added frustration of trying to understand what each result means. Another friend called me after a colposcopy – a special type of cervical exam needed after a bad pap smear – exclaiming, “Claire! What is my doctor talking about? What’s a squamous cell? What do “cellular level changes” mean? Am I getting cancer or not?!”
The odds were in my friend’s favor – she did not have cervical cancer. What I didn’t know at the time was that pre-cancerous “cellular level changes” can also have long-term implications. As a nurse, I now know when cervical cellular abnormalities are classified as moderate to severe, the standard treatment involves cervical procedures. These procedures may ultimately weaken a woman’s cervix, which in turn decreases her chances of successfully carrying a healthy pregnancy to term.
For many years, I assumed difficult conversations like this were an inevitable part of adult life. But they don’t have to be. Vaccinate your kids against HPV while they’re still kids. Protect your sons from HPV-related cancers of the head, neck and anus. Protect your daughters from vaginal, vulvar and cervical cancer, as well as pre-cancers that involve invasive testing and treatments, some of which can negatively affect future fertility.
You’ll not only prevent HPV-related cancers, but you’ll be protecting them from the uncertainty and anxiety of a bad pap smear as an adult. As a nurse who has helped many others through that uncertainty, I can promise you it’s worth it.
In honor of National Cervical Cancer Awareness month, join me in spreading the word about this important vaccine. There are a few ways you can do this:
- Vaccinate your children against HPV!
- They can start as early as 9 years of age!
- CDC recommends starting at 11 – 12 years of age
- If you start the series before your child turns 15, they only need two doses, spaced 6 months apart
- Get educated!
- Watch the “Facing HPV” series, featuring HPV cancer survivors
- Share this post and the above resources with your friends and family