Natasha Lam
Patient Advocate and Cancer Survivor

The HPV Vaccine: A parent’s cancer prevention tool. 

My husband and I were getting ready to celebrate our first Christmas in 2019 with our miracle child, Sierra Rose. On Friday December 13 that year, I was told that I had cervical cancer at stage 2B. My world crumbled as I sat in the doctor’s office breastfeeding my 8-month-old baby. As I looked down at her I thought, if this could happen to me after being so responsible and living a healthy lifestyle, what would stop it from happening to her? That holiday season was supposed to be a happy one but all I could think of was whether or not this was going to be the only Christmas I would have with her. I tried my best to enjoy it and capture every moment in pictures and videos, not knowing if she would sit in front of them someday without me.  

I am a mother and I would do anything for my child. I would jump in front of a bus or a moving train if it meant saving them. As a parent, we have an instinctual desire to ensure the protection of our children from danger. We do so by ensuring that they are vigilant, yes, but mostly by ensuring that they have the information necessary to make healthy decisions in their lives. These days, in an effort to keep my 2-year-old toddler safe, I warn her not to climb on a table or jump on the bed because if she gets a booboo, she’ll end up in hospital. During a pandemic when our hospitals are bursting at the seams, that is the last place I want my child to end up. Long wait times at the emergency room and lacking beds in the ICU make it so that I avoid having to go there during the pandemic. I have been intimately acquainted with my fair share of hospital beds over the last few years. I draw upon the parental instinct that is in every parent and it drives me to take action to ensure that I protect my daughter from going through this at some point in her life – and help parents make informed decisions for their children.  

The first time I heard about HPV was in 2005 when I started university. I was a student of limited income working part time at the Dean’s office while I studied full-time. In my need to gain some extra income, I signed up for an HPV-related research study that paid 50$ every time I went in for a blood draw and follow up.   

The following year, in 2006, the world saw the introduction of an HPV vaccine. This vaccine was being given out as a prevention tool. It caught my attention since I was involved in the study. My gynecologist never mentioned it to me and I was not even aware enough to even bring it up. In 2011, I received a letter from the HPV study in which I had partaken 6 years earlier. Apparently, I had tested positive for a “high-risk oncogenic type of HPV”. It was definitely concerning as I learned that HPV causes 9 types of cancer and they urged me to go for regular pap tests. These tests never detected anything abnormal, so I filed that letter away. 

In April of 2019 when I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl after years of infertility and 2 rounds of IVF, I bled postpartum for 6 months. Doctors said everything was normal; one even said that the bleeding is normal when breastfeeding. Deep down, I knew something was wrong and I remembered to trust my gut. Therefore, after several other opinions, screenings and testing, I received a diagnosis that proved none of this was normal. I advocated for myself, armed with that letter I had received over a decade before. I thought what was happening could be related to “the HPV letter”. Was HPV rearing its ugly head now that I finally had my precious daughter in my arms? Unfortunately, this was the case.  

I had done a lot of thinking over the last two years and tried to wrap my head around what was happening to me. How could I end up with cervical cancer? I thought I had done everything right. I thought about the precious moments lost with my daughter while I was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Now, at the young age of 36, long lasting effects of the treatments have left me dealing with osteoporosis and in post-menopause.  

Despite all this, I am alive and grateful to be here. I told myself that when things stabilize during my recovery, I would do everything that I could to bring awareness about HPV and its related cancers, which include cancer of the tonsils and vocal cords, tongue, throat, anus, cervix, vulva, vagina, and penis. In December 2021, 2 years after my diagnosis, I joined HPV Global Action, a Canadian registered charity, as a Patient Advocacy Officer. We raise awareness and provide education programs about HPV and its complications to the youth, parents, and the general public. HPV causes almost all cases of cervical cancer and, though it was the case for me, it doesn’t have to be the case for my daughter.  

The HPV vaccine is a cancer prevention tool. I should have received this vaccine when it came out but, unfortunately, I was never informed about it. Currently, the HPV vaccine is given as part of Quebec’s school-based vaccination programs with a two-dose schedule in grade 4. If it is not received in grade 4, it is available in secondary 3. The aim is to vaccinate children before they are sexually active but it is never too late, no matter their age, to get vaccinated. Parents are notified at the beginning of the school year with a consent letter and choose the vaccines that are given to their kids. As soon as Sierra is in grade 4, I will be consenting so that she does not have to go through what I have been through. If we all vaccinate our children, we can help eliminate cervical cancer but we must act now. The vaccine is safe and over 300 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered worldwide to date. It has proven to be highly effective at protecting people from HPV. 

We are all in a global pandemic, but as we fight off Covid-19, it is important to remember that we are also dealing with a global HPV pandemic. The incidence of HPV-related cancers is on the rise, especially neck and throat cancers, because people get HPV after skin-to-skin contact below the waistline with fingers, mouths or other body parts, even without penetration. Condoms do not fully protect people from this virus because condoms do not hinder direct skin-to-skin contact.  

With Quebec at varying levels of lockdown, kids are missing out on this year’s and last year’s HPV vaccine. It is estimated that 300 000 students have missed their HPV vaccine because COVID-19 has derailed the effective school-based vaccination programs currently in place. The HPV vaccine works and we need to get back on track with school-based vaccination programs or we will see the devastating effect on future generations as HPV-related cancers rise and go undetected. This can be prevented if we support each other in doing what we can to protect our children. While we are waiting for these school-based HPV immunization programs to get back on track uniformly across Quebec, parents have the option to consult with a healthcare professional or visit theier nearest CLSC  

It is imperative that we prioritize prevention with the HPV vaccine for our children in a collective effort as parents to keep safe from any booboos.