One of my guilty pleasures is my subscription to Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Nothing contentious about that – I like recipes and decorating and gardening ideas. But this month's issue had an insert in it that I just couldn't ignore. Before I go full-on rant here, I need to explain a little where I'm coming from.
It was recently brought to my attention that I've been quieter about my "former life" than I thought I had. So to explain my perspective, and to assure you all that I'm not a total raving conspiracy theorist lunatic, here's the nutshell version: before I became the happy hermit housewife you all are familiar with, I went to pharmacy school. The only degree you can get anymore to be a pharmacist is a PharmD – Doctor of Pharmacy. To do so requires enrollment in a 6-year PharmD program (which I did), or a 4-year degree in a school with a cooperative arrangement with a pharmacy school for completion of the last 2 years. The schooling is 5 years of classes – 2 years "regular" undergrad work and 3 years of "professional" classes – plus 1 year of clinical rotations, which are like medical internships, but you pay tuition instead of getting a salary. I completed my 5 years of classes up till the end of the very last semester, then quit before clinical rotations. I was already working in a pharmacy, doing everything except check prescriptions before they went out the door. The stress of school nearly killed me, and having to actually do the job definitely would have. Unfortunately, I had to have what I'm pretty sure was a nervous breakdown before I could admit to myself that I needed to get out. So I have all the knowledge and student loans, none of the stress or income or degree.
So yes, for the topic I'm about to dig into, I know what the hell I'm talking about. And the topic is a serious one – cervical cancer.
The insert I got was for an ad campaign called "Tell Someone" – here's the link provided: hpv.com. Before I get into the details of my beef with this campaign (and the underlying assertion), please note who this site is run by: Merck. And I will state it here, and reiterate it later – Merck has developed and is working on FDA approval for a HPV vaccine. Just so you have an inkling of the motivation here.
Just for thoroughness, here are three brief generalized paragraphs – one on HPV, one on cancer, and one on viruses.
HPV is the abbreviation for Human papillomavirus – this is the virus that causes genital warts. Much like genital herpes (and ANY virus), this virus can be treated and controlled, but not cured.
Whenever a cell divides or DNA is replicated for any reason, we have an enzyme that acts as a "spellchecker" to make sure that all the little nucleotides are copied verbatim. Sometimes, this spellchecker screws up. Many times, the resulting "mis-copies" are inert – the error doesn't cause any change in cellular development. Sometimes, they do cause something to happen, and the result is benign – the error causes a little lump of incorrect, but not *harmful* tissue to develop. And sometimes the errors cause a malignant growth – incorrect tissue that replicates and can break off and spread through the body. Considering how many time our spellchecker enzymes get things right, the errors are almost statistically insignificant. Except that those errors occur in a conscious being that knows what has happened and the consequences of that one little oversight, and fights to fix it however possible.
Viruses are tricky little thingies. It has still not been determined if they can even be considered "living" or "non-living" things (the wikipedia entry, should you care to read up: wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus). Basically they come in and commandeer your cells to replicate their genetic material. I think we (people) tend to think of them as living things because in many cases they are our adversaries and attackers. It's much easier, conceptually, to battle a creature that's intent on doing us harm or even kill us. And when they invade, we are often fighting them for our lives.
I think I should mention that I am very much pro-vaccines. There's a reason polio isn't the menace it once was, and that things like measles and mumps are pretty much a thing of the past. This is NOT a diatribe against vaccinations.
All that being covered, I am totally willing to entertain the idea that a virus (non-specific) can increase the likelihood of developing cancer (non-specific). In general, the more cellular activity occurring in your body, the more likelihood of "spellcheck" errors. Look at skin cancer – the more you damage your skin (via tanning, deliberate or otherwise), the more repairs your body has to come in and make. This means making new, healthy cells, which requires cell division/production. Which means potential errors. Hence tanning and burning (we all know by now that a tan is your body telling you your skin is damaged, right?) being one of the main causative factors leading to skin cancer. I know that's a major oversimplification, but you get my point. And an outside entity that acts directly on our genetic material? Of course it's potentially carcinogenic!
For some time now, it has been stated that having HPV increases a woman's likelihood for developing cervical cancer. Let me first say that the science behind this claim/notion is dubious at best. There are any number of women who develop cervical cancer who have never had HPV – I know one personally! And even more women with HPV who never develop cervical cancer. This alone should bring doubt into the mind of any rational person about HPV "causing" cervical cancer. Also, this so-called correlation doesn't take into account several factors, the primary one being that women who contract HPV are statistically far more likely to have contracted one or more other STDs in their lifetime.
My issue with the HPV connection is this: yes, the HPV directly acts on our DNA, so it does have more potential to cause cancer than other STDs. But any STD causes an immune reaction, which means increased cellular activity in that area. And, therefore, more potential "spellchecker" errors than a totally healthy vaginal/uterine/cervical area would face. Not only that, but an otherwise "normal" or "healthy" woman could have a spontaneous error caused/influenced by nothing, or chemicals in the household or workplace, or radiation/chemo treatment for an unrelated cancer. There are SO many factors involved in the development of a cancer, and it makes me beyond angry that anyone would try to oversimplify things this way. But now, after developing their marvelous vaccine, Merck is trying to convince people that HPV causes cervical cancer??? How many women currently neglect their annual Pap tests? I know I'm not on top of it like I should be. And although I'm sure even vaccinated women will be told to get their annual exams, how many will think they're protected, and not bother? Or put it off till it's too late?
As I said before, I am definitely pro-vaccine. I think the development of an HPV vaccine would be a major boon to men and women! Regardless of any possible cancer connection, anything we can do to improve the overall health of humanity is a good thing, in my opinion. And I think a campaign to inform people that an HPV vaccine is (or will soon be) available is a great idea. It's one of the least talked-about STDs out there, mainly because of the "ick" factor. I only know one woman who has ever shared with me that she had it (got it from a cheating bastard spouse), and she was only comfortable sharing about it after I started ranting on this subject, and it came up. Women talk about a lot of things, but STDs aren't high on the list. But to promote it under the auspices of preventing cancer??? That's negligence, as far as I'm concerned. And I shudder to think of the number of women in 20 to 30 years who will agree with me.