This is cervical cancer awareness week (Oct. 24 to 30) and I talked with Dr. Marla Shapiro, who is working to raise awareness about the "Forgotten Cancer".
What I learned: Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women age 20 to 44, after breast cancer. It’s caused by the HPV virus and it’s estimated 80 percent of females will be exposed to HPV in their lifetime. However, those with a healthy immune system may be able to clear the infection from their bodies. For others HPV will lead to cervical cancer which occurs when normal cells on the cervix turn into abnormal precancerous cells or lesions. Every year 1450 Canadian women are diagnosed with cervical cancer’most are under the age of 30’and, on average, one Canadian woman dies from it every day.
Regular pap tests, which check for abnormal cells on the cervix, play a big role in early detection. But according to Shapiro, the gold standard should be getting the HPV vaccine and having regular pap tests’this can boost your protection against this cancer to 94 percent. Schools across the country are offering the vaccine free to girls age 9 to 13. The National Advisory Committee on Inmmunization (NACI) has also recommended the vaccine for females age 14 to 26, even if they are already sexually active, have a previous pap abnormality or have had a previous HPV infection. But a recent survey found women 18 to 25 say that a lack of information about the vaccine and the cost of it ($170 if not covered by provincial health care plans) are what keep them from getting vaccinated. It may also be that many women in this age range aren’t aware that they are eligible for vaccination. I personally didn’t know that it was even an option for women over 18, but according to Shapiro, HPV vaccination has been proven effective in women age 26 to 45.
That’s why organizations such as the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) are trying to encourage government to make the vaccine accessible for all Canadian women. "The solution to this preventable cancer exists and cost should not be a barrier to accessing it. Cervical cancer vaccination should be available, free of charge, to all Canadian women who would benefit. Provinces and territories should ensure full funding and drug plans should be updated accordingly," says Dr. Ahmed Essat, president of the SOGC.
And it is not just women who can benefit from protection. Health Canada has approved Gardasil (the vaccine administered to girls) for boys and men to protect against HPV infection and genital warts. But the NACI has yet to recommend that it be administered for these purposes. As a mom of three boys, I was interested to know that currently the issue of vaccinating boys before they become sexually active to prevent them from passing HPV to women is being studied. I’m sure parents will be hearing more about this in the near future.