I was walking past the gynecology oncology exam room on my way to get a coffee at the very expensive coffee place and sensed great tension emitting from room 12. In that two-second passing I noticed a young woman, face red with anger, and a very uncomfortable looking young man.
“It’s not true,” I heard him say. She looked away from him stone faced and stared at the wall.
“It is true,” she said “just admit it!"
“It seems the couple in room 12 has gotten some bad news,” I commented to the clerk sitting at the front desk. “You may want to have someone go in and support them.”
“It’s more than that, the RN is going in soon,” said another person behind the desk. “It’s part of the misconception surrounding HPV infection. People think that if they get HPV-related cervical cancer and they’ve been married for many years, it must be because their spouse was unfaithful.”
They’ve been married for ten years, said my colleague.
“Well, I think she might be right then,” I commented. “That’s a long time.”
“You are incorrect,” interrupted the colposcopy nurse. "HPV can infect a person and then lay dormant for years, many, many years. You should learn more about HPV before you make inaccurate assumptions,” said the RN, who has never been my greatest fan. She’s not much of a coffee drinker either, so my usual piece offering of a latte did nothing to change her mind about me.
So tail between my legs, I left the clinic and proceeded to search the library link on my computer. There I found many articles about HPV and characteristics of the virus that I previously knew very little about. I discovered that HPV has many strains, only some of which have the potential to develop into cervical cancer and yet nearly all cervical cancers are caused by persistent infection with the Human Papillomavirus (HPV).¹
I also discovered that HPV can lay dormant for many years, reappear, sometimes during periods of stress and immune suppression, go dormant again, and then return, or often times it will stay dormant indefinitely. I also learned that cervical cancer can be the result of an HPV infection acquired over a decade prior to developing cancer and that HPV is also increasingly identified as a cause of cancer of the throat.
I learned that caught early, cervical cancer has an excellent cure rate and that vaccinating women and young girls before they become sexually active (currently recommended at 11 and 12 years of age) has led to the greatest prevention of cervical pre-cancer and cancer.¹ In some countries, boys are also receiving the HPV vaccine and that HPV incidence has dropped even further.
All of these discoveries made me think about the motto at Princess Margaret Hospital, "we will conquer cancer in our lifetime." It seems to me that the HPV vaccine is an excellent beginning to someday realizing that motto.
In conclusion, I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about HPV that day -- all on the way to a latte!