Nine years ago, I nearly became a statistic—one of nearly 300,000 women who die every year from the virus that causes cervical cancer.
As a full-fledged cancerphobe whose mother contracted lung cancer at a young age, I’d never missed a pap smear or a mammogram. Yet, ironically, my disease eluded my annual checkup. Instead, I was diagnosed months later when unmistakable symptoms of a malignancy erupted.
Several days after my surgery, my doctor delivered the results of my pathology report. When he named the human papilloma virus (H.P.V.) as the culprit responsible for my cancer, I gave him a blank look. When he explained that H.P.V. translates into the most common sexually transmitted disease on the planet, I was stunned.
Apparently my propensity for memorizing entire passages about sexual health from Our Bodies, Ourselves in college had been for naught. I had gotten cancer from an S.T.D. I’d never even heard of.
I remember the good girl in me recoiled at just the sound of the words “sexually transmitted” virus. Intellectually, I knew that no one deserves to suffer by getting cancer. But, back then, at my most vulnerable, I’ll admit that I was sometimes haunted by the notion I’d contracted cancer as retribution for past sexual (mis)adventures.
In the end, despite a morass of messy complications that conspired to steal nearly two years of my life, I survived—just. But the ordeal left me irreparably scarred—physically as well as emotionally. The surgery that saved my life had killed my hope of having children.
So I was elated when the Food and Drug Administration recently gave the green light to a vaccine called Gardasil that could virtually eradicate cervical cancer by targeting H.P.V. Widely trumpeted as a watershed medical miracle, Gardasil is the first vaccine that appears to be 100 percent effective in preventing cancer and could save countless thousands of lives.
But that hasn’t stopped some conservative groups from scrambling to sabotage the vaccine’s use. While they publicly hail Gardasil as a breakthrough, they predict it will promote promiscuity among adolescents. That’s because experts recommend mandatory inoculations for girls as young as 9, since the vaccine is most effective before sexual activity begins. So even in the face of scientific fact, supporters of the Bush administration’s abstinence campaign are once again clinging to their Biblically based hard line.
In their view, it’s better to stoke the fear of getting H.P.V. by withholding the vaccine so young girls will just say no to premarital sex. The reality is that choosing to preach chastity trumps the possibility of saving lives later on. After all, in the case of cervical cancer, abstinence has a real—and potentially deadly—loophole: Even if a girl toes the conservative line and saves herself for marriage, her new husband—who didn’t—can infect her with H.P.V.
Apparently, some adults should also get a crash course about the virus along with their kids. Even though more than half of sexually active people have been exposed to H.P.V. (which was linked to cervical cancer 20 years ago), it still lurks deep in the closet. Most people never know they’ve been infected until it’s too late.
Still, abstinence activists do not want Gardasil lumped into the mandatory childhood-vaccine mix with those given for measles and rubella. They’re pushing the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to make parents the sole “deciders” of whether their daughters should get the vaccine. The ACIP’s verdict is due at the end of this month.
Granted, the Gardasil approval has unleashed a litany of complex questions and issues, as well as moral and practical concerns that need to be sorted out.
But in the end, I can’t imagine any parent denying their child a life-saving vaccine.
Based on wrestling with the cause behind my own illness, I can even understand buying into the conservative brickbat of labeling H.P.V. as a barometer of promiscuity. Technically, it is. But instead of blaming the victims who contract H.P.V., the debate should shift to how quickly and affordably we can inoculate as many young girls and women as possible. We need to make hard decisions about who’s going to pick up the tab for the triple-dose treatment that, at $360, is beyond the reach of millions of women.
If I’d had a daughter, I would have delivered a cautionary mantra about the minefield of irresponsible sexual activity. And, yes, I would have talked about how abstinence is often—but not always—the front-line defense against consequences that can inalterably change or cost lives. Then I would’ve had my daughter vaccinated against the human papilloma virus.
That’s if I’d had a daughter.