November 08, 2017
'I’ve seen suffering and dying from an avoidable disease'
BY Kathryn Boom
It’s that time of year again. With fall comes reminders plastered around town to get your flu shot. I agree with that recommendation and have already gotten mine, but I think it’s important to remember there’s also a vaccine out there that can prevent more than the flu. It can prevent cancer.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is the easiest way to prevent several types of cancer, including cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal and oropharyngeal (throat) cancers.
A decade ago, my mother asked my pediatrician about the vaccine, because protecting me from cancer was one of her priorities. Having received it, it's unlikely I will ever suffer from any of those diseases.
However, it’s clear that HPV vaccination needs to be a priority for more parents. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that just 43% of U.S. teens were up to date on HPV vaccinations in 2016.
In Texas, the number is even lower. Only 33% of Texas teens were up to date. That’s a lot of room for improvement.
Having spent the past two summers with Kathleen Schmeler, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Hospital, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation cervical cancer can cause. I’ve seen wives, mothers and daughters suffering and dying from an avoidable disease.
I’ve seen young women, too young to be worrying about things like cancer, grappling with debilitating chemotherapies and dreadful surgeries while still attempting to manage their busy families and jobs. For some of them, cervical cancer took away any opportunity for them to ever have children.
Those heartbreaking scenes have inspired me to make sure women know about important steps for cervical cancer prevention, even for women who did not get the HPV vaccine.
Unlike some of the other HPV-related cancers, there are effective screening tests for cervical cancer. Before cervical cancer becomes invasive, it exists as abnormal pre-cancer cells, which can be caught and treated early. That is why women get Pap and/or HPV testing at the doctor’s office.
I am fortunate to have good health insurance and ready access to great doctors. Getting the HPV vaccine and appropriate screenings is easy for me, but that is not the case for everyone.
This year alone, nearly 13,000 U.S. women are expected to develop cervical cancer and over 4,000 are expected to die from the disease. That shouldn’t be the case for a preventable disease.
Women in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo regions of Texas are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer. There are approximately 25% more cases and 29% more deaths from cervical cancer in this region than the Texas average. Compared to the U.S. rates, incidence and mortality rates in this region are 55% and 57% higher, respectively.
Through my research at MD Anderson, I have interviewed many local stakeholders about accessing preventive services in this region. Their responses reveal that barriers are complicated and include immigration health issues, lack of funding, knowledge, transportation, and childcare.
MD Anderson is currently partnering with local stakeholders to help improve the situation for women, not only in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo, but in Houston, northeast Texas and around the world through provider education and patient navigation.
It’s our goal to see that we prevent as many devastating HPV-related cancers as possible. We can all do our part.
As you think about getting your flu vaccination, remember there is a cancer prevention vaccine as well. Get vaccinated, or have your children, both boys and girls, vaccinated for HPV.
Get recommended screenings and remind your loved ones to get screened regularly for cervical cancer. Support others less fortunate than you getting access to cervical cancer prevention services.
Spread the word so that someday everyone can grow up without the fear of suffering and dying from HPV-related cancers.
Learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program and other summer research programs offered at MD Anderson here.