HPV-Associated Cervical Cancer

Understanding The Basics

Earlier this week I read a report concerning the public’s general confusion about cervical cancer — its causes, detection and treatment. The sentence that I just can’t get out of my mind is a question asked by a teenage boy. “Can I get Cervical Cancer?”

The kid was serious and his attitude respectful, and his question, and perhaps the unspoken questions of his peers, needs to be addressed with respect. The obvious answer is, “No, only women have cervixes as therefore only women can get cervical cancer, however males can contract several other types of HPV-related cancers, so lets talk about those.”

To me his question, is indicative of several very important issues:

  • Has high school heath education curriculum been so dumbed-down that we no longer teach basic male and female anatomy?
  • Has Merck’s award-winning, hypnotic marketing campaign, with its catchy jingle and wholesome images been so successful it has expanded its field of influence from the targeted moms and daughters to young men?
  • What does the average person, adult or teen, actually know about HPV-Associated Cancers?
  • What does the average person, adult or teen, actually know about HPV-related conditions?

Here is what I think about what our kids are learning, where and Merck’s rapacious march to profit.

Our children are coming to age in a strangely schizophrenic society. Mass media exposes and exploits the female body. Girls and boys are pressured into situations and experience they are not prepared to handle, while school boards dither as to whether or not to teach basic human anatomy and sexual function.  This is confusing to kids and leaves them open to a plethora of poor choices. I can sense some of my readers bowing–up as I type. OK, if it is a parent’s job to handle sexual education, why haven’t more of you pulled out the operating manual and explained the basic pieces, parts, and functions to your kids.  If you don’t, MTV will. Get on it, or let the schools handle it.

As to Merck’s highly successful, marketing Blitzkrieg promoting the use of Gardasil: it is a for-profit corporation that answers to stockholders who expect ever-increasing dividends. Merck has a history of “rushing to profit” and paying ‘back-end collateral damage’ fines as a cost of business. Have they engaged in predatory marketing? “Well yeah.”

Here is what I know about HPV-Associated Cervical Cancer

  1. Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. Cancer is always named for the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.
  2. Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV types are often referred to as “low-risk” (wart-causing) or “high-risk” (cancer-causing), based on whether they put a person at risk for cancer. More than 40 HPV types can infect the genital areas of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva (area outside the vagina), and anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix, and rectum. These types can also infect the lining of the mouth and throat. (Transmission and treatment of other HPV-related cancers will be discussed in future post)
  3. The International Agency for Research on Cancer*  found that 13 HPV types can cause cancer of the cervix; one of these types can cause cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and certain head and neck cancers. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types that can cause cancer.
  4. Most HPV infections are not fatal. Most people who become infected with HPV do not know they have it. Usually, the body’s immune system gets rid of the HPV infection naturally within two years. This is true of both high-risk and low-risk types. By age 50, at least 4 out of every 5 women will have been infected with HPV at one point in their lives. HPV is also very common in men, and often has no symptoms.
  5. When the body’s immune system can’t get rid of a high-risk HPV infection, it can linger over time and turn normal cells into abnormal cells and then cancer. About 10% of women with high-risk HPV on their cervix will develop long-lasting HPV infections that put them at risk for cervical cancer. Similarly, when high-risk HPV lingers and infects the cells of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, or certain areas in the mouth and throat, it can cause cell changes called precancers. These may eventually develop into cancer if they’re not found and removed in time. These cancers are much less common than cervical cancer. Much less is known about how many people with HPV will develop cancer in these areas.
  6. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer. Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV. Some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and some cancers in areas of the head and neck (oral cavity and oropharynx) are also HPV-associated. Research is still being done to understand how and to what extent HPV causes these cancers.

HPV-Related Cancer Factoids

According to a comprehensive IARC study—

* About 90% of anal cancers are caused by HPV.
* About 40% of vulvar, vaginal, and penile cancers are linked to HPV.

Cancers of the head and neck are mostly caused by tobacco and alcohol, but recent IARC-sponsored studies* show that about 25% of mouth and 35% of throat cancers may be linked to HPV.

Most of the time, HPV goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems. It is thought that the immune system fights off HPV naturally. It is only when HPV stays in the body for many years that it can cause these cancers. It is not known why HPV goes away in most, but not all cases.

Cervical cancer can and prevented or found early through regular screening (with the Pap test) and follow-up treatment. The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers (cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately). The HPV DNA test may also be used with the Pap test for women aged 30 years and older. It looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.

The next Inconvenient Woman post will look at your odds for contracting HPV-Related Cervical Cancer.

Content source: Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Author: H. Sandra Chevalier-Batik

I started the Inconvenient Woman Blog in 2007, and am the product of a long line of inconvenient women. The matriarchal line is French-Canadian, Roman Catholic, with a very feisty Irish great-grandmother thrown in for sheer bloody mindedness. I am a research analyst and author who has made her living studying technical data, and developing articles, training materials, books and web content. Tracking through statistical data, and oblique cross-references to find the relevant connections that identifies a problem, or explains a path of action, is my passion. I love clearly delineating the magic questions of knowledge: Who, What, Why, When, Where and for How Much, Paid to Whom. My life lessons: listen carefully, question with boldness, and personally verify the answers. I look at America through the appreciative eyes of an immigrant, and an amateur historian; the popular and political culture is a ceaseless fascination. I have no impressive initials after my name. I’m merely an observer and a chronicler, an inconvenient woman who asks questions, and sometimes encourages others to look at things differently.