As a cervical cancer survivor, I have spent considerable time and energy trying to protect my children from cancer. I didn't want them to feel the emotional effects of my own cancer journey, and I certainly don't want them to go what I went through.
When it comes to cancer prevention, there is something I can do now to reduce their chances of being diagnosed with certain cancers in the future: Vaccinate against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause several types of cancer. That includes cervical cancer, as well as head and neck cancers, anal cancer, vulvar cancer and rare genital cancers.
What the HPV vaccine prevents
I know the phrase "HPV vaccine" can conjure up negative connotations, but the words "cancer" and "chemotherapy" are much worse in my book.
Most people don't consider chemo easy or fun. For me, the side effects were painful. When I was undergoing cervical cancer treatment, I didn't have a port, so I received my chemotherapy through an IV. My infusions were close to nine hours long. Some of the medicines and hydration irritated my veins and caused pain that needed to be managed with heat, cold, and eventually, medicine. The pain often brought me to tears.
Had I been given the chance to be vaccinated 30 years ago vs. having a hysterectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy and live with the worry that I may not see my children grow up, I know what I would have chosen. And, it's what I chose for my two sons.
Yes, sons. Females aren't the only ones who get HPV-related cancers. It's true that 99% of cervical cancer cases are related to HPV. But HPV also puts males and females alike at risk for head and neck cancers, anal cancer and genital cancers. I don't want my kids to go through what I went through, and I don't want my future grandchildren to go through what my kids went through when I was undergoing cancer treatment.
My children lost their mom for several months. They were in the eighth and fourth grades at the time. When my treatment began, I was unable to attend any field trips or help in the classroom. I even missed their school Christmas program. Not only did I miss a year of their lives; they missed a year of having a mom be involved in theirs. That is time that cannot be replaced.
Improving my kids' lives any way I can
So, as a mom and a cancer survivor, I tell other parents: don't wait to get your kids the HPV vaccine. Though your children can get the HPV vaccine up to age 26, the vaccine is most effective if they get it around age 11 or 12. That's when their immune systems respond best to the vaccine. Vaccinating my sons so they don't have to tell their children they have cancer like I did seems like an easy decision to me.
My older son has been vaccinated, and my younger son will get the vaccine at his next checkup. While no child likes to get a shot, let alone the three required for the HPV vaccine, I tell my boys it's better than getting nine painful hours of chemotherapy repeatedly.
Linda Ryan thought she had checked cancer off her list. Having just run her first marathon, it was hard to imagine that her cervical cancer had returned after seven years. Cancer chose the wrong woman. She was ready to battle cancer for the third time with health, laughter and friendship.