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You’ve Been Diagnosed with HPV. Now What?

Monday, December 10th, 2012

Have you gotten your HPV vaccination yet? If not, go get one now. HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the single most common cause of cervical cancer in women. In many cases, women don’t even realize that they have HPV. For that reason, it’s important that every sexually active person is vaccinated because it is technically an STD (sexually transmitted disease) transmitted through intercourse. The HPV vaccination is simple, especially compared with the possible consequences of cancer treatment without it.  As stated in a prior blog in 2009, the benefits of being vaccinated against HPV far outweigh the small potential dangers.  If you are between 9 and 26, you should seriously consider getting the vaccination.

If you’ve been diagnosed with HPV, you’re probably wondering what happens next. It is too late to get vaccinated at this point, but it’s important that you understand how high your risk for getting cancer is. Though HPV (depending on its type) causes cancer in many instances, it is not to say that you’ll get it for certain. Many high-risk HPV infections simply go away on their own without leaving anything more than a few cell abnormalities. This spontaneous clearance of the virus usually occurs in women who are younger than 30 years of age.  It’s also important that you understand ways to decrease your risk once you’re diagnosed with HPV. Smoking and poor oral hygiene have both been linked to increase cancer risk following an HPV diagnosis, so it’s important that you take proper preventative measures.

In some ways, your HPV diagnosis is a perfect way for your doctors to more closely monitor your risk of developing cervical cancer. Many women who have cervical cancer can go years without even knowing that the cells are developing. It is a silent progression from a precancerous lesion to full-blown cervical cancer.  After your HPV diagnosis, doctors will know to check for cervical and anal cancer regularly. If they notice a tumor, they can take action quickly, which is the best way for you to beat it. It can take up to twenty years for cancer cells to develop after an initial HPV infection, so regular screening is necessary. Even if a tumor forms, you still have very good chance that it is not even cancerous.

You might be devastated when you first learn that you’ve contracted HPV. However, depending your age, it may resolve or it may persist.  If it does persist, then it certainly increases your risk for cervical cancer.  However, it does not necessarily mean that you will get it for sure. Stay on top of your regular screenings and stay positive.

Read more about HPV and cervical cancer in my newly updated health book, INSIDE INFORMATION FOR WOMEN.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, M. D., M. P. H.


Why getting the HPV vaccine (Gardasil®) makes sense

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Too often, the Internet is filled with rumors about the dangers of vaccines. And those rumors are typically based on misinformation, disinformation and fear.

That’s been the case with Gardasil® (Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus  (Types 6, 11, 16, 18) Recombinant Vaccine), the vaccine that protects girls and young women from the human papilloma virus (HPV).  Many people who have HPV may not show any signs or symptoms.  This means that they can pass on the virus to others and not know it. A male or female of any age who takes part in any kind of sexual activity that involves genital contact is at risk.

While all medicines carry some risk, the benefits of being vaccinated against HPV far outweigh the small potential dangers.

A large part of the backlash against this vaccine may be due to an effort by the drug’s manufacturer to make vaccination mandatory.

Do I believe that young girls and women should be forced to get the vaccine? Absolutely not. Coercion would be a mistake. And that attempt by the drug maker appeared, in this physician’s opinion, to place profits above the right to make a personal choice.

But, getting past the bad decisions of pharmaceutical companies, let’s look at the benefits for our daughters and ourselves. We know for a fact that HPV is connected to cervical cancer. And we know for a fact that cervical cancer is a horrible disease.

So, if you can get a vaccine that will largely protect you against HPV, then getting vaccinated is an absolute no-brainer. Gardasil® protects against four types of HPV: two types (Types 16, 18) that cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, and two more types (Types 6, 11) that cause about 90 percent of genital warts.

The HPV vaccine is typically offered to girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26.  Given in a series of three injections (initial vaccine, another in two months and the last in six months).   For adolescents and younger, I would recommend discussing the vaccine with your gynecologist when your daughter comes in for her first gynecologic visit, which should be between 11 and 12 years of age. That first visit is only for an introduction to a gynecologist and a pelvic examination is not performed. It is a “get acquainted” visit and it is then that the benefits of the vaccine should be discussed.  Gardasil® is most effective if you can vaccinate before a woman risks being exposed to HPV … in other words, before she becomes sexually active.

As a woman gets older, her body isn’t as susceptible to the damage of HPV, so vaccinating isn’t recommended.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH