I will never forget the expression on my doctor’s face when he came into the recovery room that day in 2007.
I had been shaving my neck a month earlier when I felt a lump that was out of place. When it didn’t go away, I decided to have it checked out. My doctor wasn’t alarmed. He thought it was a cyst, and recommended that I have it removed. On that day in 2007, the doctor delivered the news: I had Stage 4 squamous cell cancer in my throat. I was 45 and a father of three young kids.
I never smoked, chewed tobacco and didn’t drink heavily. But I did have a risk factor, one that 80 percent of adults also have. I had been exposed to HPV, human papillomaviruses.
My first form of treatment was surgery that included 50 staples down the side of my neck. The surgery left me looking like Frankenstein’s monster. Then came seven weeks of radiation treatment and chemotherapy. Recovery took a year. I feel very, very lucky to be alive. I also was not alone.
HPV is a common cause of at least six types of cancer. Nationally, more than 20,200 HPV-related cancer cases affect women each year in the United States and 13,400 men. In California, there were 4,100 HPV-related cancer cases each year between 2009-13.
My children will never have to go through what I did because today there is a miracle cancer vaccine that prevents cancers like mine from ever starting. They’ve been vaccinated. The bad news is that too many teens are not getting this vaccine.
In August 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its yearly results from the national teenage immunization survey. The findings revealed that 10 years after the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices first recommended the HPV cancer vaccine, only 53 percent of adolescents in California have completed the HPV cancer vaccination series. An updated HPV cancer vaccination policy is urgently needed.
Virginia, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico require the HPV vaccination for school entry. In 2018, Rhode Island and D.C. had the highest percentage of completion for the HPV cancer vaccination in adolescents, at around 78 percent.
Compared to those striking improvements, California’s completed HPV cancer vaccination level has remained stagnant, changing from 46 percent to only 53 percent in the past five years. Too many Californians are left unprotected from HPV-related cancers.
To achieve the same success as Virginia, D.C., and Rhode Island, California should require that the HPV vaccination become a school entry requirement, and it has the power to do so.
In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 277 into law. That law eliminated religious and personal exemptions for state-required vaccinations.
That law also grants the California Department of Public Health the additional authority to add new vaccinations to the list of school entry requirements if those vaccinations are recommended by Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Legislature’s intent was to offer greater opportunity for disease prevention in California by giving the Department of Public Health the ability to review current vaccination programs and quickly update school entry requirements without going through a costly political process.
State officials should use that authority to prevent another generation of Californians from getting cancer. HPV cancer vaccination ought to be an entry requirement in California.
Lives depend on it.
Christopher Damico is a private investor living Pacific Palisades and is a member of the board of visitors of MD Anderson in Houston. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.