Nearly 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.
Currently, there are two HPV vaccines on the market – Gardasil and Cervarix.
“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 up to age 26.”
Spies mentioned Gardasil was approved for boys about two years ago, and he’s been suggesting it ever since. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV increases the risk of penile, anal and throat cancer.
“Cancers like cervical, penile and anal are almost 98- or 99-percent correlated with HPV,” he said. “If you get the vaccine to prevent HPV, you’re preventing those cancers as well.”
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.
The FDA recently approved Gardasil 9, which protects against nine HPV types – five more HPV types than the previous Gardasil vaccine. It reportedly has the potential to prevent approximately 90 percent of cervical, vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers.
Gardasil 9 is not on the market yet, but will be available for females ages 9 to 26 and males ages 9 to 15.
It has not been determined if Gardasil 9 will replace the original Gardasil vaccine, or if those who had the older vaccine will need to be revaccinated with Gardasil 9.