Lately there’s been a lot of talk about HPV and cancer in the news and I’ve had a lot of people come up to me with questions about it. HPV stands for Human Papillomavirus.
What is HPV?
HPV is a very common virus with several different strains that can cause common warts, genital warts, cervical cancer, throat/mouth cancer, anal cancer, and other cancers. It’s very easily spread and it’s estimated that about 75% of the population will have it at one point (I heard a guest speaker on CHUM FM in Toronto this morning who said as much as 90% but I can’t find any sources to verify this). Most will never know they have it, and it can stick around for a very long time: weeks, years, even a lifetime.
Most people who do end up with HPV are able to fight it off without any symptoms. For those of us with compromised immune systems (due to stress, improper eating, lack of sleep, etc) it may result in cancer.
Because HPV is easily transmitted sexually, most people assume that to get it you must have been kinky; but the fact is, if you’re sexually active at all, you stand a chance of getting it. Because of this there’s a stigma associated with HPV: it didn’t help when Michael Douglas openly stated that he got his throat cancer from his wife’s vagina. Truth is, having HPV does not indicate any reflection of a person’s character at all. The researchers still don’t know all of the ways that it’s passed from one person to the next.
What the researchers do know is that the rate of HPV-related cancers is on the rise, particularly mouth and throat cancers in men:
“Between 1992 and 2012, the incidence of HPV-related mouth and throat cancers increased 56 per cent in males and 17 per cent in females.”
The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that in 2016, over 200,000 cases of cancer will be diagnosed, and of this over 4,000 cases will be HPV related cancers.
Mouth and throat cancer symptoms may manifest as lumps in your throat, difficulty swallowing, constant sore throat, and ulcers in your mouth or throat.
What can you do about it?
The first thing is to get screened. Pap smears are a good start. Have your dentist or physician check your mouth and throat, and anus, for signs of cancer. An HPV DNA test is also available (for women only), but you need to check with your health care provider.
You should also enquire about getting the HPV vaccine. It’s more effective if you haven’t already been exposed to HPV which is why kids are given it, before they become sexually active. In Canada, the vaccine is available to all girls. For boys, the only provinces who are providing it are Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec but there is mounting pressure to the remaining provinces and territories to provide it to boys as well.
Lastly, protect yourself. Lower your risk factors by using condoms with unfamiliar partners and keeping your immune system strong. Quit smoking and don’t abuse alcohol or other substances.
Some famous HPV cancer victims:
Farrah Fawcett: anal cancer
Judy Blume: cervical cancer (and later on, breast cancer)
Michael Douglas: throat cancer
Me: throat cancer
Image courtesy of dream designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net