A topic I never thought I would be able to advise on, yet here I am. Keep reading to learn if you too, may be at risk of developing Cervical Cancer.
My Experience with HPV + Cervical Cancer
As some readers may know from my previous posts, I was diagnosed with Cervical Cancer at just 27 years of age. This was a total shock to me and my family at the time, as having Cystic Fibrosis kind of gave me a false self of security, assuming I couldn't possibly be diagnosed with anything worse in one lifetime!
Unfortunately, this was not the case. As a childless 27-year-old, I was forced to have a radical hysterectomy and 25 sessions of pelvic radiotherapy, leaving me wombless and menopausal.
Although what I endured was absolute hell on Earth, I learned some valuable lessons and facts on HPV, Cervical Cancer, and how my Cystic Fibrosis treatment was linked to it all.
I have been blessed with successful oncology treatment and another chance at life, so I feel it is both my honour and my duty to share these important facts with you all, in the hopes that none of you ever find yourselves in the position I did 3 years ago.
We can't discuss this topic without thoroughly discussing HPV first. HPV stands for human papillomavirus, which is a group of over 100 viruses. HPV is very common, so much so that most people will be infected with a form of HPV in their lifetime.
You can contract HPV by being sexually active with another person who already has it.
HPV is contracted from genital skin contact, so wearing a condom will not protect you from HPV.
HPV can be transferred even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms of the virus.
Anyone sexually active can get HPV, even if you have had sex with only one person. It is also possible to develop symptoms years after you have sex with someone infected, making it difficult to know when you first became infected. You may also have no signs or symptoms. It is also possible for a mother to pass HPV to her baby during birth, but this is very rare.
The average person usually clears HPV themselves, as the immune system detects it and expels it, so treatment for HPV is generally not needed. However, in some people, the HPV infection can develop, leading to cancer or genital warts.
Unfortunately, HPV causes 1 in 20 cancers worldwide and is one of the leading causes of cervical cancer. HPV also causes:
5 out of 10 vulval cancers
7 out of 10 vaginal cancers
9 out of 10 HPV-related anal cancers
9 out of 10 incidences of genital warts
mouth and throat cancer (oropharynx)
cancer of the anus (rectum)
cancer of the penis
Are You at Risk of not Clearing HPV?
Like many viral infections, HPV is generally cleared by the immune system. However, some individuals do not clear HPV. The virus often remains dormant in the body, in some cases, for many years.
There are 13 types of high-risk HPV. Type 16 and 18 are high-risk cancer-causing strains of HPV, which I contracted. If you are infected with a ‘high risk’ type of HPV and go untreated, the HPV can damage the DNA in the cells. This can cause cells to divide and grow out of control which can lead to cancer.
Immunocompromised people are at increased risk of HPV-related disease, and therefore, are at a higher risk of developing Cancer.
Examples of immunocompromised cases are;
Medical Treatments -long-term use of corticosteroids (often treatment for respiratory conditions), suppress the immune system so much so that they are unable to combat HPV when contracted, leaving it to create Cancer. Unfortunately, this was the case for me.
Transplant patients – anti-rejection medications given to transplant recipients suppress the immune system so that the body doesn't reject the new organ. These medications are a double-edged sword as the immune system becomes very fragile from their use.
Also Note: Autoimmune diseases -rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, and Type 1 Diabetes are also at risk of not clearing HPV.
This might all sound super scary, especially if you are currently in one of the above categories, but this knowledge is so powerful. If I had it a few years ago, I probably would not have had my world turned upside down at just 27 years of age.
Now that you have this knowledge, you can be proactive in protecting your future self. Keep reading to find out how!
The HPV Vaccine
The HPV vaccine now protects against 9 out of the 10 types of cancer-causing HPV.
The HPV vaccine has greatly reduced cases of pre-cancers of the cervix in young women in many countries including Australia, Sweden, the US, and the UK.
Since the HPV vaccine was licensed in 2006, research has been done all over the world showing the vaccine is safe and prevents cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) also considers the HPV vaccine to be extremely safe.
Although a date hasn't been set as of yet, the health Minister of Ireland, Stephen Donnelly has announced that the HPV Vaccine will be made available to all women under 25. This is wonderful news as the price point of the HPV vaccine has proved as a barrier to accessing this brilliant medical care.
Some things to note about the HPV Vaccine;
The vaccine protects against 9 strains of HPV including high-risk cancer strains 16 & 18 and the strains that cause genital warts, 6 & 11
It is untrue that the vaccine is ineffective after sexual debut.
It is suitable and important for both men and women to receive the HPV vaccine.
You can get the vaccine if you have already contracted HPV, I received mine last year.
In Ireland, if you want the HPV vaccine you can get it with your GP. Adults over age 15 need 3 doses; first-year students only need two.
Strictly speaking, the vaccine is licensed from age 9 to age 45. However, it’s sometimes given in special cases to people aged over 45
As of yet, there is no HPV screening available for males. The HPV vaccine is the best option for men to protect themselves from HPV-related cancers and genital warts.
All women between the ages of 25-65 should attend a cervical screening test (smear test) when it is due.
Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you should have your smear test each time it's due. This is because the HPV vaccine doesn't give complete protection against cervical cancer.
Once your screening has taken place, your test sample will be checked for HPV. If HPV is detected, the sample will then be checked for abnormal cells.
If HPV is not found, your cells won't need to be checked, as your risk of developing cell changes is very low.
Knowledge is Power
I hope you found this blog post helpful and not overly daunting! My goal isn't to scaremonger people into getting the HPV vaccine or worse, -becoming celibate!! (I joke!)
My goal for this blog piece, and much of my content, is to spread this life-changing knowledge and to remind you to always listen to your body. So often we accept new aches or levels of fatigue as 'our norm'. But it's important to flag these new issues with your GP and have them followed up.
And always remember; -your body tells you what is wrong with it, all you have to do is listen! 💛✨