Feb 11, 2015

My Story: The HPV Vaccine is Cancer Prevention

Immunize Nevada Executive Director Heidi Parker tells her personal HPV story during a TEDx presentation

When I was recently asked to give a TEDx talk about preventing cancer through HPV vaccination, I didn’t want my HPV story to be part of it. I didn’t want it broadcast to the world. I definitely didn’t want to talk about sex.

But as I thought about it and rehearsed, I realized that not telling my story — and in fact, all of us not telling our stories — is one of the inherent problems with HPV vaccine uptake. And it mirrors the way we approach anything related to sex here in the United States — whether it’s sex education, sexual assault or abuse, unintended pregnancy or prostitution (Remember: I do live in Nevada).

It’s ok for sexualized commercials, music and clothing to surround our kids; but our schools aren’t allowed to give them evidence-based, factual education that will help them make smart choices, nor are they allowed access to the tools needed to make those smart choices. We are sending our kids mixed messages. And they know it.

Yes, the HPV vaccine is cancer prevention. And it prevents cancers that mostly occur in adults — so when thinking about vaccinating our 11-12 year olds, it’s a hard concept to grasp. What the high rate of HPV infection tells us is that most parents today were probably infected at some point in their lives. And for those of us who ended up with HPV types 16 and/or 18, and whether or not that diagnosis resulted in cancer, we have a story to tell.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our own history with HPV, and we need to tell our stories. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. You can’t get it if someone sneezes on you, and you can’t get it from eating contaminated food. You get it from skin to skin, sexual contact. So before we can talk about cancer, we really do have to talk about sex – even if we don’t want to.

The conversation I had with my 12 year old son went something like this:

Me: You need to get a vaccine today.

My son: What’s it for?

Me: It prevents you from getting cancer.

My son: What kind of cancer?

Me: Remember in SHARE program when you talked about the diseases you can get from sex? Some of those diseases can cause cancer.

My son: Yuk. I don’t want to get cancer.

Kids don’t want to get cancer. You don’t want them to get cancer. HPV vaccine is cancer prevention. It can be that simple.

So if you have teens and you haven’t vaccinated them, please ask yourself why. Are you concerned about safety? Or are you really concerned it’s giving them permission to have sex?

In terms of safety, pre-licensure clinical trials as well as a CDC investigation using the Vaccine Safety Datalink suggest that the biggest risk most people face after getting the HPV vaccine is a little soreness or redness at the injection site. 

But for parents who believe vaccination is tantamount to a free pass for kids to have sex: The reality is, the reason for the recommendation for an HPV vaccine between ages 11 and 12 for boys and girls is actually because they’re NOT having sex. The vaccine protects against types of HPV to which the person hasn’t been exposed — which is the reason for administration before they’re sexually active.

We’re not giving them permission to have sex, and I don’t know any parents whose pre-vaccination conversation in any way implied that; rather, we are just preparing our children’s bodies to be protected against cancer when they’re engaged in sexual activities — which, yes, most of us are hoping will be many, many years down the road.

Please be honest with yourself about your concerns, and then get the facts. There are a lot of things we can’t control as our teens become young adults, but we can prevent them from getting HPV-associated cancers. We can protect them early — before they become sexually active — so they won’t be another HPV-related statistic.

Like I am.

At Immunize Nevada, we recently started a grassroots social media campaign to put a positive face to vaccination. It’s called #IAmTheWhy, and it invites people to consider the faces of the people they’re protecting through vaccination.

And it occurs to me as we discuss HPV: #IAmTheWhy. Truly. I lived through HPV diagnosis and treatment, but I wouldn’t have had to had my parents had access to this vaccine. I am walking, living proof that HPV vaccine should be administered to pre-teens — before they’re sexually active.

#IAmTheWhy.

And I have a story to tell, which is the reason for my TEDx talk and this blog.

Please join me as we engage in this valuable dialogue. Tell your stories, listen to the stories of those who have had vaccine-preventable cancers. And join the masses who support administration of HPV vaccine to our kids before they engage in sex.

Because doesn’t every parent just want to protect their children? 

Heidi Parker, MA

As executive director of Immunize Nevada, Heidi Parker, MA leads and engages a diverse coalition of staff, volunteers, member organizations and funders so they are passionate about vaccines and access to preventive health care across Nevada’s rural, urban and frontier communities. Bringing over two decades of experience in nonprofit program management, fundraising and marketing, she has dedicated her career to being able to affect her community in a positive way, whether working with Head Start families, victims of violence, college students or Nevadans needing immunizations.