HPV and Cancer
- Breast and cervical cancer survivor Judy Blume has written beloved 29 books since 1969.
- Blume’s cervical cancer was related to the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted infection.
- Having HPV puts people at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer as well as oral cancer and cancers of the vagina, penis, anus and throat.
- Thankfully, there is a safe and effective vaccine to help protect people from HPV and help prevent associated cancers.
Ahead of the film adaption of “Are You There God?” coming out, how is 85-year-old Blume doing after surviving two cancers? Let’s take a look.
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“First and foremost, it’s for the ones who will recognize, they’ll recognize where they were when they read it,” she said, “And they’ll remember.”
The film stars Kathy Bates, a two-time cancer survivor herself, as 11-year-old Sylvia’s grandma.
The story is “obviously about a young girl who is becoming a young woman and she’s embracing her womanhood,” Bates said, according to People. “And I think women throughout history have been taught to feel negatively about their bodies and about the processes that their bodies go through. I think this film will help young women feel better about their bodies.”
Blume is now retired from writing and fittingly runs the independent book store she opened with her husband in Key West, Florida. It’s called Books and Books, and adoring fans come to visit her frequently.
Judy Blume’s Cancer Journey
On top of all of her success, Judy Blume has also waged not one but two successful battles against cancer.
She first shared the news of her cancer experiences with a blog post entitled “[email protected]#$% Happens” on Sept. 5, 2012. The entire post was mainly about her breast cancer diagnosis earlier that year, but she also told fans about a cervical cancer battle that happened 17 years prior.
“I’d had a hysterectomy seventeen years ago (cervical cancer caused by HPV),” she wrote in the blog post. “We didn’t know it was cervical cancer before the surgery but we knew something was going on. Caught it just in time, extensive but still in situ (in the original place without having spread). No other treatment necessary.”
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A hysterectomy is a surgery to remove all or part of the uterus. When used for cervical cancer treatment, the cervix and sometimes the surrounding structures are removed. According to the National Cancer Institute, other cervical cancer treatment options beyond surgeries include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Blume received her breast cancer diagnosis after a routine screening appointment. Thankfully, she had been getting regular breast ultrasounds because of her naturally dense breasts.
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“I have to thank Dr. S, the radiologist who’s been doing my mammograms for 20 years,” she wrote. “If she hadn’t decided I should have a sonogram because of dense breast tissue we still wouldn’t know.
“This didn’t show up in a mammo or in physical exams, and I’m checked by doctors four times a year. Even the breast surgeon couldn’t feel this one. If you have dense breast tissue ask your radiologist about having a sonogram.”
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Blume almost tried to delay the recommended biopsy that followed her ultrasound, but her doctor convinced her otherwise. The biopsy confirmed she had breast cancer that was caught at an early stage.
“A visit to the radiologist on June 12 for a routine ultrasound (dense breast tissue) led to a core biopsy,” she wrote. “Not that I didn’t try to jump off the table and tell Dr. S I’d have the biopsy at another time because I had a really busy summer coming up.
“Oh, yeah–I actually did that, saying I’d discuss it with my GYN and get back to her. She convinced me, in her very quiet way, that my GYN would tell me to have the biopsy. Now.”
Given her healthy lifestyle, Blume was shocked by the diagnosis. Her story is yet another perfect example of why it’s important to prioritize recommended screenings no matter what your risk level may be.
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“Wait – me? There’s no breast cancer in my family (recent extensive genetic testing shows no genetic connection),” she explained. “I haven’t eaten red meat in more than 30 years. I’ve never smoked, I exercise every day, forget alcohol – it’s bad for my reflux – I’ve been the same weight my whole adult life. How is this possible? Well, guess what – it’s possible.”
She didn’t shed a tear upon hearing the news, but she did “[spring] into action.” For treatment, she underwent a mastectomy followed by reconstruction, and she is still cancer-free from both diseases today.
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HPV and Cancer
In honor of STI (sexually transmitted infection) Awareness Month, we’d like to zero in on Judy Blume’s cervical cancer and it’s connection to an ever-prevalent STI – human papillomavirus (HPV). Blume didn’t go into much detail about her cervical cancer journey, but she did share that her disease was, in fact, HPV-related. She also shared what she would do if she had children given her experience with HPV.
“If I had a young daughter or son I’d talk to their docs about having the vaccine to protect them from getting or giving HPV,” she wrote in her blog. “If only there was a vaccine to protect us from breast cancer we’d be lined up – wouldn’t we?”
HPV and Cancer Risk: The Basics
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is an extremely common virus spread through sexual activity. Most people with the infection do not know they have it and never develop symptoms or health problems from it, but the virus can manifest as warts on your genitals or mouth.
“The vast majority of humans in the U.S., both men and women, will eventually get infected with human papillomavirus,” Dr. Allen Ho, a head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai, previously told SurvivorNet.
When people discuss HPV and cancer risk, they tend to focus on cervical cancer. And while it’s true that nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, people should also be aware that HPV puts both men and women at risk of developing several other cancers such as oral cancer and cancers of the vagina, penis, anus and throat.
“The important thing to know about HPV is that there are many different strains, and only a couple of them tend to be more cancer-inducing,” Dr. Ho said. “Probably less than 1% of the population who get infected happen to have the cancer-causing virus that somehow their immune system fails to clear, and over 15 to 20 years [it] develops from a viral infection into a tumor, and a cancer.”
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Thankfully, there are ways to protect people from getting HPV, helping to prevent associated cancers.
“We have a safe and effective vaccine to prevent HPV-related cancer,” Dr. Susan Vadaparampil, the associate center director of community outreach, engagement and equity at Moffitt Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet. “It is widely available, and costs are typically covered by private or public insurance.”
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Dr. Vadaparampil says data from countries with high rates of vaccine coverage show decreases in HPV-related pre-cancer and cancer – particularly so in the case of cervical cancer.
According to the CDC, the HPV vaccine is recommended for all preteens (both girls and boys) 11 to 12 years old in two doses administered between six and 12 months apart. The series of shots can also be started as early as 9 years old.
The CDC also says teens and young adults through age 26 who didn’t start or finish the HPV vaccine series also need the vaccine. And people with weakened immune systems or teens and young adults who start the series between the ages of 15 and 26 should get three doses instead of two.
In addition, the HPV vaccine is sometimes administered in adults up to 45 years old, though it is not recommended for everyone older than 26. Still, a person older than 26 might decide to get vaccinated after talking to their doctor about possible benefits even despite it being less effective in this age range given that more people have already been exposed to HPV by this time.
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Despite their safety and efficacy, the HPV vaccines have been the subject of many myths over the years. Our experts want to set the record straight.
“The HPV vaccines do not cause autism. There’s always a risk of some vaccine-related side effects … local site injection pain, some redness, some swelling,” says Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center. “There are no syndromes such as autism or other neurologic symptoms that have been linked to the HPV vaccines.”
Other people choose to not give their children the HPV vaccinate because they don’t want to think of their future sexual experiences. While this is understandable, Dr. Geiger urges parents to remember that refusing to vaccinate your children denies them available protection from HPV-linked diseases – and that should be reason enough.
“The fact is that the majority of us are going to participate in sexual activity at some point in our lives,” Dr. Geiger said. “It’s unreasonable to think that just because your child isn’t engaging in sexual activity now that they won’t later in life.”
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