The origin of many types of cancers is unknown. Oncologists can figure out where the cancer is and whether it has infected other areas of the body. But with the exception of a few cancers – lung being the most notable – doctors can’t determine exactly what caused a particular cancer.
The carcinogen could have been in a food, in the water, or in the air. Or maybe the patient was genetically predisposed to a certain cancer.
Some types of cancer, however, can be traced back to the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is often spread through sexual contact. The virus doesn’t cause cancer in everyone who acquires it, but everyone who acquires it has the potential to spread it to others.
Here’s the good news – most HPV-related cancers can be prevented with a routine vaccine.
Not just cervical cancer
In addition to cervical cancer, the HPV vaccine can potentially prevent other cancers, and some affect men and women. Other cancers that are theoretically affected by the HPV vaccine: vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, oropharynx (tongue, throat).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. The vaccine was first widely distributed to females in 2007 and to males in 2010. In 2016, about 60 percent of teens ages 13-17 had received at least one dose of the HPV vaccine. At least two doses are required for immunization.
No reason to worry
I like to start the conversation with parents early, giving them time to prepare their children for the vaccine and to explain its importance. The HPV vaccine should be considered part of each child’s standard vaccination regimen, and most health insurance covers administration of the HPV vaccine.
Still, parents I talk to sometimes hesitate to consent for the HPV vaccine for their teenagers or pre-teens. When I get a few minutes to talk one-on-one with a teenage patient, however, they usually want to receive the vaccine. That’s good, because they understand that getting the vaccine can prevent cancer as they grow into adults.
The vaccine can be administered up to age 26. So unvaccinated college students should find a local physician and get the vaccine. Women should keep in mind, though, that an HPV vaccine does not prevent all gynecological cancers. They should still have regular gynecological exams and pap smears.
If I had a child nearing adolescence, I would have no reservations about getting them vaccinated against HPV. I’ve vaccinated hundreds of patients, and I’ve never seen anyone experience short- or long-term adverse effects.
Dr. Sean B. Hommel, DO, practices family medicine at the New Hanover Medical Group – NHRMC Physician Group. If you need to schedule an appointment with a doctor, please call 910.662.6000.