I remember when I was scheduled for my first colonoscopy, I was reluctant to proceed with it. My doctor looked me in the eye and said “Colon cancer is the only cancer we can truly prevent, and we can do it by detecting polyps in your colon and removing them before they can develop into cancer.” His comments had a huge impact on me, and my colonoscopy was performed the next day – and several polyps were removed. Many years later I have colonoscopies scheduled when my doctors tell me to. Yep, it’s a small hassle. But based on the number of polyps I’ve had removed, it seems like a really small price to pay.
Having your children vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) is also a way to prevent cancers. Research has shown that 2.5% of adolescents have HPV, and that 1 in 9 American men have oral HPV. While HPV vaccinations are probably not quite as effective as colonoscopies, they are far easier. The statistics I’ve read indicate the vaccinations are probably preventing 90% of related cancers.
HPV causes 70% of oralpharyngeal cancers. While happily the numbers of oralpharyngeal cancer aren’t enormous, HPV causes about 31,500 cases of cancer in the US in both genders. (While not all of those cancers are oralpharyngeal, I’m all about preventing ALL cancers. So, if vaccinations can prevent 70% of those linked to HPV, that strikes me as huge!)
I suspect that there are people reading this who are against all vaccinations. While I don’t agree with that perspective because I believe the safety of vaccinations is incredibly high, I’m not going to spend any ink arguing against that position. I simply ask that they study the research and the options.
What I know is that when I first became a dentist, people who developed oral cancers were generally older adults, mostly males, who had smoked and consumed an above average amount of alcohol. Today, the average age of people developing oral cancers is plummeting. A significant percentage of those people don’t use tobacco and most of them don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol either. Further, most of them test positive for HPV.
For a large number of years the majority of HPV related cancers were cervical cancer in women. Today, with HPV related cancers, oralpharyngeal cancer has overtaken cervical cancer. Also for many years it seemed that most HPV related cancers were in women. Today men are four times more likely than women to be diagnosed with oralpharyngeal cancer. In less than 40 years, many of the statistics have been turned upside down – I find that both amazing and terrifying!
To make this even worse, many of the oralpharyngeal cancers related to HPV are found in and around the tonsils and are often far more difficult to detect than the more “traditional” types of oral cancer. That translates to the reality that by the time those are detected, they are larger and are more likely to have spread – making treatment far more difficult and less likely to succeed.
In the beginning HPV vaccinations were encouraged more for girls than boys. Today, I would want all of my children to be vaccinated. The recommended age is 11-12, but the vaccinations can be given as early as age 9, and it is most effective if given before the age of 13. Having said that, if your children have not been vaccinated or if you are a young adult, vaccinations can be given up to the age of 26, and they will still provide significant benefits.
I encourage you to have a discussion about HPV vaccinations with your medical doctor. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month – this seems like a GREAT time to take action! Don’t just be aware of it, PREVENT IT! (And tell your medical doctor that I sent you.)