A Cancer Researcher’s Thoughts on HPV Vaccination

I have some excellent news to share. The FDA recently approved Gardasil 9, Merck’s HPV vaccine, for the prevention of head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). In the US, this particular cancer is the most prevalent type of the six different cancers caused by HPV. There are about 13,500 new cases of these HPV-caused head and neck cancers per year, along with a large number of head and neck cancers that are associated with smoking and alcohol consumption. This approval comes after the approval of the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer, anogenital cancers, and genital warts.

While this news is exciting, approval of the HPV vaccine for preventing head and neck cancers, unfortunately, won’t help current patients. However, the vaccine can prevent most boys and girls from ever developing this cancer (along with the other types of cancer caused by the virus). As a survivor of an HPV-caused head and neck cancer, I’m happy to see any medical intervention that prevents other people from joining my group. Cancer patients are members of a large club that they never asked and never wanted to join. The HPV vaccine was not available to most members of our “club” when we were young and before we became infected. That’s because it hadn’t been invented yet. Every single patient or survivor I’ve spoken to would have been overjoyed to get the vaccine had it been available when we were young. Anyone who’s undergone cancer treatment knows it’s a difficult path to walk, studded with numerous twists and turns, difficulties and disappointments. Even after finishing treatment, we all live with the fear that the cancer could reoccur at some point. We all know deep inside us that PREVENTING cancer is way better than treating it.

As a cancer researcher, I know that developing the HPV vaccine took years of hard work by many groups of highly skilled and dedicated scientists. I keep track of the data showing the effectiveness of the vaccine as it’s been put to use around the world. This data flows in at a pretty steady rate and clearly demonstrates the value of the vaccine. For example, the incidence of HPV infections and cervical pre-cancers are way down among those who have been vaccinated. Since it can take decades for HPV-caused cancers to develop, we will have to wait a while to see a decrease in the number of cancers in the vaccinated group, but I am confident that we’ll see that going forward.

As an HNCA Ambassador, the vaccine approval adds one more arrow to my quiver of facts that I share with parents as I urge them to get their children vaccinated. When many people hear “HPV vaccine,” they think it’s only for girls because they know it’s used to prevent cervical cancer. Initially, this was the only disease that the vaccine was approved for. We now have an understanding that HPV causes cancers in both men and women, and in pretty equal numbers. Being able to point out that the vaccine is now approved to prevent head and neck cancers in both sexes will drive home the point that all kids should be given this vaccine before they become sexually active. If parents are still unconvinced that boys need the vaccine too, I share with them the fact that five men will develop an HPV-caused head and neck cancer for every woman who gets the disease. The expanded FDA approval of the HPV vaccine makes my role as a vaccine advocate just a little bit easier, and for that I am grateful.

Stewart Lyman, Ph.D.
Cancer Researcher and Biotechnology Consultant
Survivor of HPV-attributed Tonsil Cancer
Seattle, WA