Some 79 million Americans have human papillomavirus (HPV). And many don’t know they are infected. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease and a major cause of cervical cancer.

Keesha Carter of Charlotte, North Carolina, discovered she was infected with HPV during her prenatal care in 2006. Going forward, she continued to get STD tests during her regular visits with her primary care provider.

In January 2009, Carter visited her primary care doctor for a sinus infection, and as usual, she asked for a full panel of STD tests. As soon as her physician did the tests, he knew something was wrong.

Carter was immediately referred to an ob-gyn for further testing. Her gynecologist found a tumor and was surprised to learn it hadn’t been detected on Carter’s Pap test just seven months earlier.

“The tumor was that big,” Carter said. “It was the size of a quarter on my cervix.”

A second opinion

Carter sought a second opinion through the UNC Health Care network and learned that the tumor was too big for a small operation. She was scheduled to have a hysterectomy in April 2009. The hysterectomy was put on hold, however, as Carter’s physicians soon realized the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

“After that, our plan changed,” Carter said. “I had chemotherapy followed by radiation.”

A second birthday

In July 2009, Carter finished her treatment. “I call July 15 my second birthday,” she said. “That’s the day I finished my treatment and I became a new person.”

Carter has accomplished much since her self-proclaimed “second birthday.” She started a nonprofit organization that focuses on raising awareness about gynecological cancers and empowers women through art. Carter also stays busy raising her 8-year-old daughter.

“I’ve done a lot of things I was afraid to do before,” Carter said. “I launched my business this year and I hosted a women’s conference. Cancer really allows us to start doing things we never thought we could do and overcome things we never thought we’d overcome.”

Fear of recurrence crosses Carter’s mind a lot. Carter could have chosen not to tell anyone about her diagnosis, but she said she believes everything happened for a reason and that it is important to share her story. “I want people to question how they are taking care of themselves,” she said.

How to protect yourself

Cervical cancer can often be prevented with regular Pap tests and follow-up care. Women should begin having regular Pap tests at age 21.

Following the news that cancers caused by HPV have spiked in the U.S. over the past 15 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018 approved using Gardasil, the HPV vaccine for men and women from ages 27 to 45.

Cervical, penile and anal cancers are almost always correlated to HPV. Studies have shown that the vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective in the nine strains it targets. 

Previously, the vaccine was approved only for individuals between the ages of 9 and 26. Now by targeting a larger age range, the federal agency is hoping to see more adults get vaccinated to protect themselves from further exposure to possibly cancerous strains of HPV.

“I recommend both boys and girls get the HPV vaccine,” said Dr. Scott Spies of Novant Health Matthews Children’s Clinic. “The vaccine is most effective if given before you are sexually active, but it’s available starting from age 9."  

Spies mentioned no states or schools currently require the HPV vaccine, and physicians are not required to talk about it. He said it’s standard for his practice to suggest and encourage the vaccine to every teenager who visits his office.

Gardasil is administered in three shots over six months. Each shot ranges from $130 to $200. Robinson tells patients to check their insurance policy to see if it’s covered, especially if you’re a patient in that expanded age range.

With the demands of juggling work and family, it can be difficult to find time to take care of yourself. Download our women’s health guide today.