The first time the teenager heard of human papillomavirus (HPV) and throat cancer was when his parents sat him down on the family room sofa to disclose his father’s new diagnosis. During the following months of Dad’s intensive treatment for the cancer, nothing was left to Matthew’s imagination:
My dad’s life changed a lot. He had so many surgeries. There was one to take out a mass the doctors found in his neck, which turned out to be cancer. Then they took out his tonsils because they were looking for where the cancer was coming from. Then he had another one to insert a feeding tube in his stomach. He had four different operations to widen his throat. He also needed both “chemo” (chemotherapy) and radiation treatments to fight his cancer.
Because of his cancer and treatments, my dad lost around 30 pounds. And he always looked pale white like he was really sick. The treatments to his throat made it so he couldn’t swallow so he couldn’t eat the normal way anymore. And the treatments made him lose his voice too. He also had to have a sucking tube down his throat that was always sucking up gunky mucus. He needed that because he couldn’t swallow, and he would choke. It was a lot of stuff.
The past few decades have seen a remarkable improvement in cancer treatments and survivability. Here are some cancer statistics from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
> In 2018, there will be an estimated 1,735,350 new cancer cases diagnosed and 609,640 cancer deaths in the United States. Over a single year, that equates to 4,750 new cases of cancer and 1,670 cancer deaths every day in the U.S.
> In 2018, it is expected that the top 10 cancers by body site will be: 1. Breast; 2. Lung and bronchus; 3. Prostate; 4. Colon/Rectum; 5. Skin (melanoma); 6. Bladder; 7. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; 8. Kidney; 9. Uterus; 10. Blood (leukemia). Oral cancer is ranked 13th, with 51,540 new cases and 10,030 deaths expected this year.
> HPV is thought to be responsible for more than 90% of anal and cervical cancers, about 70% of vaginal and vulvar cancers, and more than 60% of penile cancers. Cancers of the head and neck are often caused by tobacco and alcohol, but recent studies show that about 70% of cancers of the oropharynx may be linked to HPV.
> In 2014, Kentucky had the highest rate of new cancer diagnoses among states, followed by Delaware and Louisiana. Pennsylvania had the 4th highest cancer rate (477.3 per 100,000 or 8.5% above the national rate of 436.6 per 100,000).
> The number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis reached nearly 14.5 million in 2014 and is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024.
> Approximately 39.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes (based on 2010-2012 data).
> In 2014, an estimated 15,780 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 were diagnosed with cancer and 1,960 died of the disease.
> National expenditures for cancer care in the United States totaled nearly $125 billion in 2010 and could reach $156 billion in 2020.
Thankfully, Matthew’s father survived his oral cancer diagnosis and treatments. Fortunately, oral cancer that is caused by HPV is preventable with a series of vaccines that have proven to be safe and effective:
One day while dad was still getting his treatments, I was going for a doctor appointment to get a shot, my last HPV shot, and I suddenly realized: Hey this is the HPV vaccine! Before my dad got sick I never paid any attention to what shots I was getting. But now, I connected my shot to my dad’s experience. I mean, the HPV vaccine prevents HPV cancers—like my dad has. So when I rolled up my sleeve I was thinking. I’d rather get a hundred HPV shots so I don’t have to go through what my dad is going through.
Matthew made the connection between cancer and prevention. Now he is helping others make that connection, too, before cancer affects them or their loved ones:
There’s really no down side to getting the HPV vaccine. Now that I’ve seen what HPV cancer was like for my dad, getting the vaccine is just logical. I think I’d like to be someone who speaks in public about getting vaccinated because everyone should know that it’s important to prevent any kind of HPV cancer. I hope my story will help other kids and their parents.
We’ve got a lot more about preventing HPV infections and cancer on The PediaBlog here.
*** On January 22, 2018, Pediatric Alliance and some of our pediatric colleagues from around the United States began participating in an 8-week AAP-sponsored immunization advocacy campaign on social media. Please follow all our social media posts during this project on Facebook and Twitter.