A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from a 42-year-old mother in Oklahoma who had been living with cervical cancer for the past two years. Her call, however, was not about her own situation but about whether she should have her 13-year-old daughter get an HPV vaccination.
Much has been written recently about the positive impact of HPV vaccinations in preventing cervical cancer. The human papilloma virus, or HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection, usually occurring when a person first becomes sexually active. There are many HPV strains, which can be spread simultaneously; some are related to genital warts, others to cancers. HPV has been found to be responsible for a majority of cervical cancers and is also implicated as the cause of some oropharyngeal cancers, about half of all penile cancers, and most anal cancers. Although the body’s immune system clears up most HPV infections, about 10% remain, which can then lead to a disease state.
Yet, controversy persists about the effectiveness of HPV vaccinations as a preventive measure against cancer, particularly cervical cancer. The debate involves how the vaccine is marketed and the risk of side effects outweighing its potential to protect girls and young women from developing cancer later in life. Some critics accuse the pharmaceutical industry of creating a “market out of thin air” and question the ethics of claiming that HPV vaccines guard against cancer, as opposed to being a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease. The debate continues.
These were the issues weighing on the mind of my caller that day. Often, the kind of counseling an oncology social worker provides is supporting people caught in the midst of this kind of debate, weighing conflicting and sometimes contradictory information, and then helping that individual decide the best course of action to take for his or her situation. This is so true of this topic. We can help you get the information you need to make the right decision for you. Call us at 1-800-813-HOPE (4673).
[NOTE: On Sept. 9, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of independent medical experts endorsed the use of a second vaccine -- Cevarix -- to protect against cervical cancer in women; and to expand the use of the first approved vaccine, Gardasil, in preventing genital warts in males. The panel's endorsement is expected to lead to the FDA's approval of Cevarix. Gardasil was approved in 2006. Source: The Wall Street Journal]
William Goeren, LCSW-R, is a professional oncology social worker and director of quality assurance of the social services division of CancerCare.