Vaccines are next step in fight against cancer

Vaccines have come into the spotlight thanks to the highly effective COVID vaccine, but we are also seeing great promise with vaccines when it comes to battling the other big “C” – cancer.

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The HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical and other cancers..

The HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical and other cancers.

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“Let’s end cancer as we know it,” President Joe Biden said during his State of the Union last Tuesday night. He was referring to his plans to reinitiate the Cancer Moonshot program, hoping to reduce the number of people dying from cancer over the next 25 years. One of his ways to do this: vaccines.

Vaccines have come into the spotlight thanks to the highly effective COVID-19 vaccine, but we are also seeing great promise with vaccines when it comes to battling the other big “C” — cancer.

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It sounds unreal. But as a physician who specializes in treating cancer, I can tell you that vaccines are already becoming one of our greatest tools in the effort to eradicate cancer. That’s not just a lofty goal but a reality within reach.

Consider the gains being made with human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. It usually affects people in their late teens and early 20s, presenting itself as either completely asymptomatic or as genital warts. More alarmingly, HPV can also cause cancer.

Multiple cancers have been associated with HPV, including cervical, vaginal, penile, anal and throat cancers. Luckily, we now have a vaccine that could help prevent these cancers.

The HPV vaccine first came out in 2006 for cervical cancer, but the FDA only recently approved the vaccine in 2020 for the prevention of head and neck cancers and expanded the recommendation for older age groups as well. The vaccine is currently recommended for both men and women ages 11-26, with recommendations for patients 27-45 to discuss the benefits with their providers.

A 2021 study in JAMA Oncology projects the incidence of HPV-associated head and neck cancers will decrease among younger individuals by the year 2045, mostly in part due to the vaccine.

However, much like what we are seeing with COVID, not enough people are taking advantage of the latest treatment modern medicine has to offer.

In a 2020 National Immunization Survey for Teens, 58% of adolescents were up to date, with 75% of adolescents having received the first dose to start the series of shots. Illinois is above the national average, with 63% of eligible adolescents up to date on their vaccine.

These numbers are promising and trending in the right direction. But the numbers don’t explore the possible effect this could have on the group of people in their 30s and 40s where a “discuss with your provider” recommendation is made.

As an oncologist in Chicago, I’ve seen the effects of HPV on head and neck cancer firsthand. Patients can often have lifelong effects from their treatment, including dry mouth, difficulty swallowing or, in the worst cases, sometimes having to have a hole in their throat just to be able to breathe.

To be sure, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will get the virus at some point in their lifetime, and not all of these infections will go on to cause cancer.

However, it is likely that someone who has already been infected with HPV will still get some benefit from the vaccination, as it may protect against different variants of the virus that they may not have acquired yet with very limited side effects from the vaccine itself. Still, the vaccine provides maximum benefit for individuals who receive it before they become sexually active.

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So, it’s time the general public starts asking about the HPV vaccine and general practitioners start recommending it to older age groups, even for those individuals in their 30s and 40s who have already likely acquired the virus.

Getting the vaccine later in life as an adult could prevent a biopsy, a scan or even help save a life. A majority of individuals believe the vaccine is for their kids, but with such a low risk and a high reward, we adults need to be getting the vaccine ourselves.

The best way to cure cancer is to prevent cancer from happening in the first place. And with a treatment that has virtually no side effects, we need to start advocating for more people to get the vaccine — a sentiment that has been shared widely during these COVID years.

Kevin Charles King, MD, is a radiation oncology resident at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

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