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Ending the Stigma Round Cancers Brought on by HPV

Reviewed by: Dr. Carole Fakhry

It’s not uncommon for celebrities to publicize a cancer diagnosis, but Michael Douglas was not only open about his illness – he was also open about what caused it. In 2013, Douglas announced that his cancer was attributed to human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that is widely transmitted sexually.

Douglas openly drew attention to HPV-associated cancers; The response he received clearly illustrated the stigma that surrounds them. The stigma, however, comes from ignorance of how common HPV-related cancers are and outdated sexual stereotypes.

What is HPV?

HPV infection is a common viral infection that affects almost everyone who is sexually active at some point in their life. About 85% of women and 91% of men will be infected with at least one type of HPV by the age of 45.

Some types of HPV infections cause warts, but others can be much more serious and lead to different types of cancer. Because HPV infection often has no symptoms and sometimes goes away on its own, many people will never know they had it.

How is HPV transmitted?

Sexual contact through vaginal, anal, or oral sex is the main way HPV is spread. Its reputation as a sexually transmitted disease is one of the reasons HPV is often associated with a stigma.

Some people are more prone to HPV than others. For example, in people with weakened immune systems, such as B. People living with HIV / AIDS or taking immunosuppressive drugs may be at higher risk for HPV infection.

What is the Link Between HPV and Cancer?

HPV causes 99% of all cervical cancer and is associated with cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and oropharyngeal cancer.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a head and neck cancer that affects the oropharynx – the back third of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate, and the sides and back of the throat. Up to 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States are attributed to HPV.

Dr. Eleni Rettig, a head and neck surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, told HealthyWomen she sees many patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer and the number of cases is growing dramatically. “It is more common than cervical cancer in the US today,” said Retting.

Why are HPV and HPV-related cancers difficult to diagnose?

At this point, screening tests for HPV can only be done in the cervix. This screening can be helpful in preventing cervical cancer. However, there is no way to check for HPV on parts of the body associated with other cancers or in men, and you cannot have your throat checked for HPV.

What can you do to prevent HPV and related cancers?

There is no cure for HPV, but there is a vaccine that can prevent HPV-related cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend teenagers getting the HPV vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12 to help prevent some cancers later in life. In addition, the HPV vaccine, which was developed to prevent cervical cancer, can protect against oral infection by strains of HPV that cause oropharyngeal cancers.

The CDC also recommends the HPV vaccine for people under the age of 26 who have not yet been vaccinated. People between the ages of 27 and 45 may also want to consider the vaccine if they think they are at risk of re-infection with HPV.

Lifestyle decisions like avoiding smoking and alcohol and practicing good oral hygiene can also reduce the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.

Why the stigma surrounding HPV-associated cancers?

Some people with HPV-associated cancer feel ashamed or concerned about their diagnosis because HPV is sexually transmitted and STDs have historically been associated with negative stereotypes such as promiscuity. Many people do not know how common HPV is as it generally does not appear in casual conversations.

When they find out that they have HPV cancer, they may be embarrassed. “I see patients who feel uncomfortable when they ask questions about it or don’t want to share this particular information with their loved ones,” said Rettig.

What is being done to end the stigma?

When it comes to ending any type of stigma, accurate information is key. “Educating patients and providers is tremendously helpful and will go a long way toward ending the stigma,” said Rettig. “Explain how common HPV is and that it doesn’t mean someone was promiscuous.”

If more people knew how common HPV is spread, how easily it can be spread, and how many people could be infected with it without realizing it, they might feel less stigmatized when they get an HPV diagnosis or a diagnosis of HPV- get related cancer. They may also be less likely to stigmatize others.

For providers, it’s about staying up to date with the latest science. “So much of what we’ve learned about oropharyngeal cancer has only come out in the last 10 years,” said Rettig. “The field is constantly changing and we are learning so much about this disease that it can be difficult for providers to keep up with everything. It is very important just to get the information out.”

This resource was created with the assistance of Merck.

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