HPV can cause multiple cancers in women

Monday, October 30, 2017
Steve Hong, D.O., OB/GYN

October has been observed as National Breast Cancer Awareness month in Marshall for 10 years, and the annual Pink Out campaign has continued to grow since the start. And while breast cancer is the primary focus, other cancers that affect the lives of women also should be considered.

“We are very fortunate in the U.S., because our screening processes have really worked to reduce the numbers of women who die from cervical cancer. In other parts of the world, their instances of cervical cancer death is much higher than the U.S. because of our use of regular PAP smears,” said Steve Hong, D.O., OB/GYN at Marshall Women’s Care, noting that ovarian, endometrial, cervical, vaginal and uterine cancers also affect women in the area.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the incidences of cervical cancer in the United States has decreased by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years because of widespread cervical cytology including the Pap test.

Many types of cancers that affect women can be directly attributed to instances of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). HPV is a sexually-transmitted virus that has more than 40 different strains. There is no cure for HPV once it has been contracted, but there is an HPV vaccine that is very effective in preventing the spread of the disease. Boys and girls are recommended to receive the first of three doses of the vaccine around 9 years of age.

“If you can prevent these cancers, some of which are very difficult to detect, simply by having a couple shots of vaccination, why wouldn’t you want to? I am a big proponent of the HPV vaccine because it can have such wide reaching effect if it prevents a person from getting cancer,” said Hong.

While great strides have been made in the detection of cervical cancer, ovarian and uterine cancer remains extremely difficult to detect because the person who has it may have no symptoms.

“There is not really a reliable way of detecting ovarian and uterine cancers because there aren’t standard symptoms. We usually find them when we have performed some other procedure, like a hysterectomy, because of other problems a woman may have. We send those tissues out for testing and receive the pathology results later,” said Hong.

In addition to ovarian and uterine cancers, because sexual habits of individuals have changed, more instances of anal and oral/pharyngeal cancers are being detected.

“The HPV vaccine is covered by insurance, and for good reason. We are finding that several cancers are directly tied to it. It is important to note that the risk is not just for women, as men can be carriers of the HPV virus and not even be aware of it,” said Hong, hence the recommendation that both girls and boys be vaccinated against HPV.

Just as in vaccinations for Influenza, there are two levels of HPV vaccines available. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bivalent vaccine contains protection against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause about 66 percent of cervical cancer and the majority of other HPV-attributable cancers in the United States. The quadrivalent vaccine adds protection against strains 6 and 11, which causes genital warts. A 9-valent HPV vaccine also exists which targets five additional cancer-causing types which account for another 15 percent of cervical cancers.

“It is very important to note that the HPV vaccine is not administered because a person is sexually active. It is administered long before a person becomes sexually active. Because if you wait, it may be too late to prevent exposure to the virus,” said Hong. “I plan on having my own children vaccinated when it is time.”

HPV vaccination is normally covered at 100 percent by commercial health insurance plans as well as government-run programs, but you are encouraged to check with your individual plan for specific details. ACOG recommends an annual well-woman visit with cervical cancer screening beginning at age 21 irrespective of the sexual activity of the patient. Pap tests should be conducted on women aged 21-29 every three years and women ages 30-65 should have a Pap test with HPV test every five years.

To schedule your well-woman exam, call the team at Marshall Women’s Care with Dr. Karen Song, Dr. Steve Hong and certified Nurse Midwives Deanna Donnell and Megan Shepard. They are located inside the Fitzgibbon Medical Clinic and can be reached by calling 660-886-7800.