Cancer Prevention in a Vaccine

Exterior views of the Outpatient Pavilion with the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center sign in the foreground on July 25, 2019. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Parents never want to think of their children as sexually active, especially when they are 11-15 years old. However, if it means protecting your children from several types of cancer, it’s important to get past the uncomfortable conversation.

The CDC recommends that parents have their sons and daughters vaccinated at the ages of 11-15 from Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). The best time to vaccinate teenagers is before they are exposed to HPV.

HPV is estimated to cause nearly 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women every year in the U.S. The HPV vaccination can prevent more than 32,000 of these cancers from ever developing by preventing the infections that cause those cancers.

HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus. Almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life if they do not get the HPV vaccination.

Approximately 14 million Americans, including teenagers, become infected each year with HPV. While most HPV infections will go away on their own, infections that don’t go away can cause certain types of cancer.

Nearly all cervical cancers result from HPV infections which can also cause cancer of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (oropharynx cancer).

“HPV infections are not limited to females and vaccination should be provided universally to prevent transmission, pre-cancers and cancers.” said Dr. Bradford Whitcomb, chief of gynecologic oncology at the Carole & Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health.

However, vaccination rates for HPV have remained far lower than rates for other routine and childhood teen immunizations.

Cervical cancer occurs in the cells of the cervix — the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Various strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, play a role in causing most cervical cancer.

There are usually no symptoms of cervical cancer until it has progressed to a dangerous stage. However, cervical cancer is slow-growing, so its progression through precancerous changes provides opportunities for prevention, early detection and treatment.

“Better means of detection such as widespread use of the Papanicolaou test (Pap smear) and high-risk HPV testing have meant a decline in cervical cancer in the U.S. over the decades,” says Whitcomb.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) new cases of both anal and oropharyngeal cancers are increasing. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be more HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancer diagnoses than cervical cancer in the U.S.

Marcia Cross of Desperate Housewives fame raised awareness of other types of cancer associated with HPV when she announced that she had been diagnosed with anal cancer in 2019. Her husband Tom Mahoney was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009. Doctor’s suspect that Cross’ and Mahoney’s cancers came from the same type of human papillomavirus.

Anal infection with HPV resulting in genital warts is a major risk factor for anal cancer.

Anal cancer may be detected during a routine digital rectal exam or during a minor procedure, such as removal of what is believed to be a hemorrhoid. When it is found early, anal cancer is highly treatable.

Oropharyngeal cancer (OPC) is found in the tissue of the part of the throat (oropharynx) that includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate, and the walls of the pharynx.

Most cancers of the neck can be cured, especially if they are found early. Treatment varies according to the type, location, and extent of the cancer and often includes a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.

UConn Health head and neck cancer specialists tailor treatment plans to their patients’ needs, taking into account the type of cancer, the age of the individual, the degree to which the cancer has spread, and the overall health of the patient.

Both Cross and her husband are in remission but are also raising awareness of the need to vaccinate for HPV, not only to protect from cervical cancer, but also the other types of cancers that HPV causes.

For more information visit the Carole & Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center at UConn Health.