Last week nine million Americans tuned in to view Farrah's Story, the moving account of Farrah Fawcett and her struggle with anal cancer. I know I watched the self-produced documentary specifically to see if they would mention the connection between anal cancer and HPV. Unfortunately, it never came.
It is believed that 90% of anal cancers are caused by the human papilloma virus or HPV. Anal cancer, while still not high on the list with approximately 3000 new cases diagnosed each year is on the rise. While it is possible that Ms. Fawcett's anal cancer was not caused by HPV, statistically that is likely not the case.
She did however have the courage to expose the horrific procedures associated with treating the disease and increase awareness of a cancer which is too taboo to be spoken about. Many news accounts of her cancer initially referred to it as a colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer and anal cancer are not the same thing. After the airing, one particular news channel once again began the drum beat about colorectal screening.
The healthcare profession, on the whole, is sorely lacking in its knowledge and understanding of HPV. This compromises patient care and the potential health if not life of the patient.
As someone who has survived anal cancer it was difficult for me to watch this documentary as it evoked all those memories of what I had gone through myself and am continuing to go through now dealing with a recurrence.
I'm sure everyone has seen at least one Gardasil commercial, the vaccine which can help to prevent cervical cancer, and as the commercial says "other HPV diseases". Unfortunately it does not go on to mention what those other HPV diseases are. They include vaginal, vulvar, anal and penile cancers caused by high risk strains of HPV (typically 16 and 18) as well as genital warts caused by the low risk strains of HPV (typically 6 and 11). Most women, and men as well, have no idea that HPV is also related to these other cancers. It is for that reason, that I had hoped a public service announcement at the conclusion would have been so instrumental in increasing awareness that anal cancer can be preventable just like cervical cancer.
The fact that Ms. Fawcett asks why more research is not done on certain cancers (presuming she is referring to anal cancer) I have to wonder if she was even tested for HPV as she certainly didn't seem to be aware of its existence or its role in the development of this cancer.
Note that the Gardasil commercial does not mention that HPV is sexually transmitted. Obviously this would not create a stampeed to the doctor's office to obtain the vaccine. But, shifting the focus away from the root mode of transmission and focusing on the potential cervical cancer can certainly induce more young women to receive the vaccine which is currently approved by the FDA for those age 9 to 26.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached not only to this particular body part but to the sexual transmission of the virus as well. Hopefully in the near future, we will be able to speak about anal cancer as easily as we do today about breast cancer, cervical cancer and colorectal cancer. Only time will tell.
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