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n an era of $500,000 cancer treatments, you’d expect a vaccine series that costs about $300 and helps prevent several types of cancer to be popular with physicians, insurers, and consumers. It’s not, and, as a result, people are dying. I should know — I’m one of them.

The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause changes in the body that lead to six cancers: cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancer in women; penile cancer in men; and anal cancer in both women and men. It can also cause oropharyngeal cancer — cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils — in both sexes. In the U.S., approximately 30,000 new cancers attributable to HPV are diagnosed each year.

In 2006, the first vaccine became available to protect against HPV infection. I was 38 years old at the time, well above the upper age limit of 26 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for getting the vaccine. Ideally it should be given before the teen years, but can be given up to age 26.

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Uptake of the HPV vaccine in the U.S. is abysmal, with just 49 percent of girls and 37 percent of boys having received the recommended HPV vaccination series.

Individuals who oppose the use of vaccines argue that safety concerns should preclude the use of the HPV vaccine. I disagree. The safety and effectiveness of this vaccine to protect against cancer-causing strains of the HPV virus have been unquestionably proven. Others point to side effects of the HPV vaccine as a reason not to vaccinate young Americans. These may include pain, swelling, redness, itching, bruising, bleeding, or a lump at the injection site as well as headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sore throat. Most people who get the vaccine experience no side effects from it other than the pain that accompanies most shots.

Missing from the discussion are the risks of not getting the vaccine. As someone with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, I can describe a few of them. And I can say with certainty I would gladly have experienced any of the vaccine-related side effects rather than the dozen or so “side effects” of the cancer and its treatment that I’m living with. I’ve illustrated them on the image below.

Some of these side effects, like hair loss, aren’t hazardous. Others are. I’ve spent time in an intensive care unit for my rapid heart rate, and have had to go to the emergency department several times for my pleural effusion and other issues. All of these pale beside the biggest “side effect” — a terminal disease that will eventually take my life.

I urge all parents to talk to your child’s doctor about the HPV vaccine. I wish my parents had that opportunity when I was young, as it could have prevented the cancer that’s killing me.

MDB Cancer Treatments Effects
Michael Becker

Michael D. Becker is president and founder of MDB Communications LLC. He previously served as president, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and director for several publicly traded biotechnology companies, including Cytogen, VioQuest Pharmaceuticals, and Relmada Therapeutics. He describes his fight with HPV-mediated oropharyngeal cancer in “A Walk with Purpose: Memoir of a Bioentrepreneur.”

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  • I have to agree with you that the use of HPV vaccines shouldnt be precluded. In the first place our body react differently to vaccines and medicines that is why in an article that Ive read from this site https://www.cancertreatment.education says that the amount and type of treatment or vaccines that a cancer patient will have depend on several elements.

    • Can you provide a link to a specific article? Searching the site for “vaccine” only yields one article about cervical cancer.

  • Dear Dr. Becker – I am sorry for your condition and praise your story about the importance for children to be vaccinated against HPV long before sexual activity. It should be a mandatory vaccine around the world and every parent should ensure that their children have access to such an important vaccine, especially with over 10 years experience of Gardasil and Cerevix in the market. Thank you.

  • Also missing from the discussion is how many women got hpv because we were told there was no test for men (and we’re still being told that)

    • Sorry to quibble, but the cause of HPV infection, regardless of gender, is sex with an infected individual. So any man who transmits the virus got it from someone else, most often a woman. Further, routine testing in women is, so far, not recommended in women under 30.
      And it appears that among those telling us there is no (useful) test for men is the CDC- https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv-and-men.htm
      Hopefully useful testing options will improve though in a condition with such high prevalence, individual testing is likely to have much less impact than widespread vaccination.

  • Sorry to hear of your cancer.
    I’ve seen a couple of things recently about this link and about the moderately high prevalence of oral HPV, especially in men. If I recall it peaked around age 50.
    I’m pretty sure the vaccine is not FDA-approved for this indication at this age or yours. It sounds very sensible. I’m curious whether any studies/ trials on this have been done or are planned. Couldn’t find anything in a quick Google search.

    • Charles – as I understand, the HPV vaccine is optimum when given prior to sexual activity (and potential exposure to the virus), which is one of the reasons for the agreement guidance. Also, your body’s immune system can decline with age and giving the vaccine at age 50+ may not be effective.

  • Why no mention of the newly released study that heavy drinking (4 drinks per day) increases the risk of head & neck cancer in men by 500%?

    • Yes, a worrisome finding. And tobacco use is a major risk as well. These merely weren’t part of the writer’s intent. Moderation of alcohol consumption of alcohol are also recommended for everyone.
      And is that a recent study? It’s not especially new information.

    • Correction- Moderation of alcohol consumption and avoidance of tobacco are recommended for everyone

    • Meirah – because the incidence of head/neck cancer due to alcohol and smoking has declined, while HPV-related disease has increased. Also, my cancer is HPV-related.

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