This past Thursday, Kresge Recital Hall filled with people eager to wage a war on cancer. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Student Health Advocacy Group and Panhellenic Council, Carrie Newman from the American Cancer Society came to Knox to speak on the dangers of the human papillomavirus (HPV), how to prevent it and treatment options should infection occur.
“When the American Cancer Society was founded in 1913, cervical cancer was the leading killer of women,” said Newman. “It’s found in the opening of the uterus. It’s one of the easiest cancers to prevent through screening. The main cause is HPV.”
Newman explained that HPV can lead to either genital warts or cervical cancer. Passed between sexual partners through genital contact, more than 100 types of HPV exist, but only a few types – 16 and 18 – can cause cervical cancer. Two other types – 6 and 11 – can lead to genital warts in both men and women. Anyone who has ever had sex is at risk for carrying HPV.
Difficulties often arise, however, in detecting HPV. There is currently no FDA-approved test for men to see if they might carry the virus. Carriers often display no symptoms whatsoever, giving women a false sense of security. Newman emphasized regular Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer.
“The earlier we detect it, the better it is,” she said. “Survival rates are so much better if we find it earlier.”
If a Pap smear reveals abnormal cells, they can be removed before the cancer spreads. If detected early enough that the cancer is still localized, the five year survival rate is 92 percent. Newman noted that there are often no symptoms until the cancer has already reached stage three or four, making Pap smears even more critical as people might otherwise have no idea something is wrong.
“The second they get an abnormal Pap test, they can go in and get rid of those cells before they spread,” Newman said.
Newman also noted the advantages of getting a vaccine against HPV. Two are currently available – Gardasil, which protects against both cervical cancer and genital warts, and Cervarix, which protects against cervical cancer. Gardasil was found to be safe in large studies and Cervarix was found to be safe in studies conducted among women aged 18 to 25.
Newman recommended that females should be vaccinated at around 11 or 12 and as early as nine years of age, up to 26 years of age.
“We would prefer if you get it before you have sex,” Newman said. Since the vaccine does not protect against strains a person already carries, it is critical for the person to get the vaccine before any chance of infection occurs. However, Newman suggested talking to one’s doctor about getting the vaccine even if a person has already had sex, as it could protect against a strain a person has not yet been infected with.
According to Newman, the vaccine could prevent up to 70 percent of cervical cancers.
“HPV is not the sole cause of cervical cancer,” she said. “Seventy percent are caused by HPV but 30 percent are caused by smoking, hereditary, not eating healthy…cells just mutating. [But] it’s 100 percent effective at preventing those types of HPV.”
The vaccine requires three shots but no boosters afterwards. Newman stressed how easy it is to access the vaccine and other measures of prevention.
“When you leave campus, if for some reason you’re uninsured or underinsured, the government will make sure you can get your screening,” Newman said. For women aged 18 to 40, the screening is covered through the government . If cervical cancer is found, the patient will be fast-tracked onto Medicaid.
“It’s out there and it’s free…that is why our cervical cancer mortality rates have gone down. Not only do we have Pap tests that can find it, we have programs that can help pay for it,” Newman said. Knox students can receive the vaccine and yearly screenings through Galesburg health services.
Despite the benefits of the vaccine, Newman acknowledged that some people still had questions.
“There’s a lot of people with doubts about the safety of the vaccine…there are parents that do not want to get their daughters vaccinated because they feel it’s a green light to go out and become sexually active,” she said. She said the vaccine carries the same risks as any other vaccine but that those with concerns should do their research and look at the numbers for themselves.
“There will always be those cases where something goes wrong,” she said. “I will be getting my daughter vaccinated the day she turns ten. If you’re not comfortable with the vaccine, that’s absolutely fine, but please, please, please make sure you get those screenings. Even before the vaccine we could prevent cervical cancer through those screenings.”
Newman noted that HPV can cause other types of cancer as well, including cancers in men. Numerous genital and head and neck cancers (mostly tongue and tonsil, due to oral sex) can be caused by HPV in both genders and both men and women can be carriers.
“Share this with the men in your life– it’s important for them to know too,” Newman said.