Medical science has made tremendous strides against cancer. There are more effective treatments, often with fewer side effects. Advances have been made in screening for earlier cancer detection. But let’s not forget about a third method of fighting cancer—by preventing it in the first place.
After all, no matter how good cancer treatment gets, it often involves tremendous discomfort, terrible anxiety and high financial cost.
Saturday is World Cancer Day, the perfect time to remember that the best cancer is the one you never get. And a very effective and low-cost tool for preventing cancer is vaccination.
Vaccines against cancer? Yes, a couple of them are already here and available right now.
The better-known of the two is the vaccine against human papillomavirus, ideally given during the preteen or early teenage years. The CDC recently made it easier to get the full protection of this vaccine, by changing its recommendation from three doses to two for those who start the series prior to age 15. Just two doses, in a lifetime.
Virtually all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. And in 2017, according to the American Cancer Society, doctors will diagnose more than 12,800 new cases of invasive cervical cancer. More than 4,200 women will die.
But that’s not all the protection delivered by the HPV vaccine. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, HPV is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancers—those affecting the very back of the mouth and part of the throat. And these cancers caused by HPV are more difficult to detect than those from smoking, another major cause of mouth and throat cancers, which makes preventing them in the first place all the more important.
“HPV oral and oropharyngeal cancers are harder to discover than tobacco related cancers because the symptoms are not always obvious to the individual who is developing the disease, or to professionals that are looking for it,” the foundation reports. “They can be very subtle and painless."
HPV also can cause vaginal, vulvar, penile and anal cancers.
In other words, HPV isn’t just a “girl’s vaccine.” It’s important for parents to have their sons vaccinated as well.
A study published earlier this month in JAMA Oncology found that 45 percent of American men ages 18 to 59 had genital HPV infections, or 35 million men. The rate of infection was about half that for women of the same age range.
Yet, even though the HPV vaccine has been approved for boys since 2009, vaccination rates among men are very low, said the study, which looked at 2013-14 numbers. The study found that only 11 percent of the men who could have been vaccinated received even one dose. And though vaccination rates for women are much higher, with about a third of eligible women getting at least one dose, the numbers are far lower than for other routine vaccinations.
Less well known is the fact that the routine childhood vaccination for hepatitis B also is a cancer preventer.
“Worldwide, the most significant risk factor for liver cancer is chronic infection with hepatitis B virus and hepatitis C virus,” the American Cancer Society reports. There is no vaccine against hepatitis C, but people can be vaccinated against the other cancer-causing hepatitis, and have their children vaccinated.
Why not join the fight against cancer with a preventive method covered by insurance and many public programs, that’s no more painful than a couple of shots? Have yourself vaccinated, or urge a loved one to do so.
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