When AIDS became an epidemic back in the 1980s it was something that people simply did not want to talk about. It was as though even discussing the subject somehow put one at risk for contracting the newly discovered virus, and it took quite a number of years before even the news media seemed comfortable discussing the subject.
The same is true now with respect to anal cancer. As a survivor of anal cancer (twice) I tend to pay particular attention to media accounts, print or otherwise, of this disease.
In the case of Farrah Fawcett, who passed away from anal cancer in June 2009, there were very few reporters who even used the word anal. In most cases it was referred to as colon cancer which a totally separate disease. Those who did report it as anal cancer appeared visibly uncomfortable even using the word.
HPV (human papillomavirus) is responsible for greater than 90 percent of anal cancers, a disease all too often misdiagnosed as bleeding hemorrhoids. In addition to the protection offered against cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women and penile cancer in men, the United States Food and Drug Administration has recently approved the Gardasil vaccine for use in the protection against anal cancer as well.
We cannot adequately address the subject when there is difficulty even mentioning it. This needs to be viewed for what it is, simply another body part. It is unfortunate that most people who have even heard of HPV make no other connections beyond that of cervical cancer.
I believe this is due in large part to the Gardasil commercials which first introduced most people to the term HPV. At that time, the vaccine was only approved for protection against cervical cancer, however much has changed in the five years since Gardasil became available. Unfortunately, there has not been another wave of commercials updating people regarding the many other cancers which HPV has now been shown to cause, and many physicians do not provide this information to their patients either.
The Centers for Disease Control estimated that some 20 million Americans have HPV. It is the single most common sexually transmitted infection making clear the need to address HPV-induced anal cancer now and not years down the road. We simply cannot allow our underlying discomfort to delay discussion of the subject as happened with the AIDS virus.
There are over 100 strains of HPV, 40 of which affect the genital tract. With a vaccine available to protect from anal cancers caused by the two most aggressive high risk strains of the virus (16 and 18), the sooner people are made aware of this availability the better.
Bonnie Diraimondo is a registered nurse and author of the book Any Mother's Daughter. She is an expert in the area of HPV and advocates on behalf of patients.