More than five thousand Americans are diagnosed with cancer on any given day. Let that sink in for a moment. There’s a high likelihood that someone you know or love – possibly even you, personally – hears three of the most dreaded words possible: You have cancer.
Even in the age of advanced diagnostics, proton beam and nanotechnology treatments, and more walkathons than we can count, cancer still kills roughly one-third of those in the U.S. diagnosed with it. The numbers for low-income countries are far more shocking.
The causes of many cancers aren’t some hidden mystery. In the U.S., we can prevent two of the most dangerous forms of skin cancer by 40-50 percent by wearing sunscreen, but it’s an expensive option, and only 13 percent say they protect themselves most of the time with SPF-rated lotions. People are 15-30 times more likely to get lung cancer if they smoke; nevertheless, 1 in 10 Americans still smoke cigarettes.
You Have Cancer – or Not
We continue to lose many of the battles we should win against cancer. Billions of dollars have been spent over the years to educate the public on how they can prevent cancer; billions more have gone into treating patients. And then there’s the emotional toll that comes from hearing those three words.
There is a massive bright spot in this story, however. While the chances of preventing many forms of cancer with known interventions are frequently below 50 percent, we have a way of preventing six forms of cancer with a 90 percent effectiveness rate. It doesn’t come from adhering to daily rituals or resisting tempting vices. These cancers can be prevented by going to a doctor’s office or a pharmacy* and getting vaccinated against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
The catch is that the greatest chance of preventing HPV-related cancers later in life comes from vaccinating kids between 9-14. That requires parents seeing the importance of preventing HPV and many don’t, especially in southern states, where the number of pre-teens and adolescents who are fully vaccinated against HPV frequently falls below 50 percent.
Anxiety Versus Information
Many parents cite the vaccine’s safety as a leading concern, which is not based on fact. In the 17 years since the HPV vaccine has been available, more than 160 studies in multiple countries have shown no major adverse events associated with the vaccine. Instead, safety concerns have been fueled by misinformation on the Internet and skepticism among key audiences, including some healthcare professionals (HCPs).
More strikingly, however, the roots of hesitancy to vaccinate against HPV may go back to how it has been presented to patients: as a vaccine for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), not cancer. This is a major reason many parents discount the importance of getting their 10-year-old child vaccinated. In the face of such resistance, many HCPs in chronically under-vaccinated communities do not proactively recommend HPV vaccination during annual well visits.
Need to Reinform the Link Between HPV and Cancer
Reorienting this trend requires a concerted effort to flip the script on HPV vaccination discussions from STI prevention to cancer prevention. In the past year, only 22 percent of online conversations linked HPV with cancer. And in research conducted last month, FINN Partners found that only 46 percent of HCPs surveyed discuss HPV as cancer prevention.
This presents an important opportunity to close one of our generation’s most important health gaps. Healthcare professionals rank among the most trusted people in the U.S. When doctors make a vaccine recommendation with authority; most parents follow that counsel.
Flipping the script on HPV conversations tackles several significant barriers for patients: many may have omission bias, which means they believe vaccinating puts their kids in greater danger than the disease it’s supposed to prevent. And since they can’t picture their children getting an STI, they discount HPV vaccination further as a priority. But presenting that same vaccine as cancer prevention could change the nature of the conversation. Most parents understand cancer and see it as a threat. And cancer doesn’t carry the same stigma among many patient communities as sexually transmitted diseases.
The Cancer Prevention Message is Long Neglected
It’s time to make cancer prevention the dominant message in HPV vaccination decisions. More than 135 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered in the U.S., and we have seen a dramatic correlation in the drop in HPV cases: the prevalence of four HPV strains has declined by 88 percent among women aged 14-19. If HCPs are provided with better resources and more people are educated on HPV vaccination as cancer prevention, we have a shot at addressing misinformation about vaccine safety and continuing the upward trend of HPV vaccination.
The stakes are high for us to get this right. Because the only thing possibly worse than being told “You have cancer” is hearing that your son or daughter has HPV-related cancer later in life when it could have been prevented by a simple, safe decision to vaccinate them against HPV as an adolescent.
*HPV vaccines can be administered to adolescents at pharmacies in 22 states. Most states allow pharmacists to administer HPV to older patients.