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As a Cervical Cancer Survivor, I’m Making Sure My Son Gets the HPV Vaccine

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

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image source: nancy devault

In 2012, I became a statistic. Following a routine Pap smear, my doctor uttered the words: “The test showed cervical cancer.”  That word — cancer — was like a sucker punch leaving me stunned. I fought back tears, lying vulnerable on the exam table. And as soon as I slammed my car door shut, I collapsed into a full-blown ugly cry.

Now what?

I was 32 years old and just wanted my mommy. I called her, my husband, and my sister, blurting out to each of them: “I have cervical cancer.” I was not only scared but also embarrassed, as my sex life was to blame. You see, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that currently affects about 79 million Americans.

My doctor referred me to a gynecologic oncologist. I loved Dr. G immediately, despite the fact that she was poking around my lady parts. She was funny, smart, and nurturing — everything a scared patient could hope for. And she understood that her work could impact my fertility. I wanted children; ironically, my husband and I had planned to start trying soon. It was supposed to be a year of milestones — a career change, marathon, pregnancy — oh, but that sucker punch …

Three weeks later, while en route to the operating room, I remember Dr. G kindly rubbing my feet as she explained what was about to happen. But I didn’t hear a thing she said. Fright consumed my head with questions: Would I be able to give my husband children afterwards? What must he (and everyone) think of me? What if the cancer spreads?

The cancer was, thankfully, confined to a portion of my cervix and surrounding lymph nodes, and successfully removed. This meant I could forgo radiation with close monitoring. And though it took time, I was able to conceive a healthy baby boy!

I was overcome with joy — not only had I beat cancer but I also had my beautiful boy, Finn. And as a mom, I wanted only the best for him; not to experience the shock, the fear, the pain that I went through. So I couldn’t help but worry about my son’s risk of HPV, which could cause other cancers and health problems for him later on in life. It’s so common that 80-90% of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives, according to Cancer.gov. And there is currently no test for men, so it’s often unknowingly spread to partners. To help protect him, and his eventual partner, from the physical and emotional toll of HPV, I’m planning to get him vaccinated when he’s of age.

After all, since the first vaccine was recommended, there has been a 64% reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections among teen girls in the U.S. The CDC recommends vaccinations as a safeguard for both genders at age 11-12 to minimize their risks. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Well, you can imagine my surprise when a trusted loved one told me she is on the fence about whether her children will get the vaccine. She knows very well of the difficult experience I went through, so her hesitation sort of felt like a slap in the face at first — like she had forgotten the cause and effect HPV had on me. She was concerned about this “too new” vaccine’s side effects and age recommendations. But the CDC claims that it’s safe and effective when following the requirements, and has recently updated its recommendations.

As for the age concern, while our children are not having sex yet (nor do we ever want to think about them becoming sexually active), the point is to vaccinate before sexual activity. Of course I understand her concerns, and that it’s a very personal decision that you must feel completely comfortable with. But I couldn’t help but feel hurt and dismissed. For now, she’s learning more about the vaccine and discussing the options with her doctor.

As parents, we currently have a choice, though many states are introducing legislation that could make the HPV vaccine mandatory for students. As for me, I plan on adhering to medical advancements that will hopefully help my son dodge the health sucker punch that hit me.

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