Recently, I joined the Board of Directors for the American Cancer Society in Indiana. Admittedly, I did not know as much about cancer compared to many of those who had worked in medical professions, volunteered with the Society, or helped fund scientists researching cancer.
My Relationship With Cancer
I had done none of that. My tie to cancer came in both personal and professional formats. During my time at USA Track & Field (USATF), I worked to secure the first national partnership between the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Olympic Team. In short, we encouraged individuals to pledge funds based on the number of medals the team won at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During this time, I learned stories of competing athletes who were battling cancer.
Gabe Grunewald, was a distance runner who battled a rare form of cancer known as adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC). Gabe never shied away from her diagnosis; quite the opposite, she brought the world along on her journey and encouraged us all to be “Brave Like Gabe.” I also learned of countless other athletes, executives, staff and fans who were directly related to someone who has or had cancer. Gabe lost her battle with cancer on June 11, 2019.
Dress Up Next Time
While at USATF, I also learned of the passing of a close personal friend, Keisha Brown, who battled breast cancer for seven years. Keisha was a mother, wife, basketball star at Tulane University, high school coach and so much more in my hometown community of Mount Pleasant, Mich. I loved Keisha Brown! She was a role model, a friend and a beautiful human being.
My absolute favorite memory of Keisha was during my freshman year at Central Michigan University. She was the head coach for a young girls AAU team and offered me the position as her assistant coach. One weekend, all of the girls on the team spent the night at my (my parent’s) house. The next morning we got up and drove to the local tournament.
Let me preface this by saying, Keisha was one of the most God-fearing, loving, thoughtful, amazing, beautiful…no-nonsense, DON’T PLAY, high expectations having, tough human beings on this planet. She was a winner and bred WINNERS!!
Anyway, I showed up with the girls team, we were all in our team sweatshirts and sweatpants, hair in ponytails or braids, ready to go. That cold Saturday morning at approximately 8:17 a.m., Keisha looked at the team, then looked at me…the conversation went something like this:
What Could I Say….NOTHING
Me: Good morning!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Keisha: (straight face) what are you doing?
Me: huh? I’m here with the girls, the game starts at 9 right?
Keisha: Go Home
Keisha: Go home
Disclaimer: No matter what was going on in life, the one thing I knew about Keisha was that she was FAIR. You may not like what she was saying, but she was FAIR. I knew (deep, deep down) whatever was coming next came from a place of love….even if I didn’t understand it fully at the time.
Keisha: If you are supposed to be a coach to these girls, you need to present yourself as a coach. A coach does not show up to the games looking like the players. A coach is a leader. A coach is an example. A coach is someone who deserves respect and one of the first things that will hinder you today will be your failure to realize that. So go home.
Keisha: You are better than what you are doing right now. Until you can realize that, go home. Go home and fix it.
I. WENT. HOME.
Keisha lost her battle with cancer on April 10, 2014.
What If There Is Something We Can Do to Fight
I tell you about my friend Keisha and her battle with cancer because if there was anything I could do to prevent, deter or eliminate cancer from ANY of my loved ones I would… in a heartbeat!
As I sat in my first Board of Directors meeting for the American Cancer Society in Indiana, I learned about the human papillomavirus (HPV) and the subsequent vaccine. I learned that there is a vaccine that LITERALLY prevents six different cancers when given to boys and girls at the most effective ages of 11 & 12!
One of the cancers this vaccine can prevent is cervical cancer.
“African American women experience higher cervical cancer incidence and mortality than their Caucasian counterparts. The prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is associated with cervical cancer, is significantly higher in African American women as well.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
What is HPV?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV is a different virus than HIV and herpes. 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are currently infected with HPV. There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause health problems including genital warts and cancers.
“The virus is so common, about 4 out of 5 people will get it at some point in their lives. But most infected people don’t know they’re infected.”-American Cancer Society.
HPV can cause cervical and other cancers including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils (called oropharyngeal cancer) and oropharyngeal cancer is on the rise!
The HPV Vaccine
The vaccine is most effective at preventing cancer when young people, ideally ages 11-12, are given the now two-dose vaccination within a 6-month time frame. The HPV vaccine is 1-of-3 vaccines that are necessary for your child at this age.
HPV CANNOT be treated, but it CAN be prevented. The vaccine helps to prevent:
- Cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women
- Penile cancer in men
- Throat cancers in men and women
- Anal cancer in men and women
- Genital warts in men and women
As I sat in that Board Meeting talking about the low HPV vaccination rates across the country, I couldn’t hold it in any more.
“Why is this even an issue. I know I’m new here, but if there is a vaccine that literally prevents six types of cancer….why do we even NEED to promote it. Shouldn’t it be just as common as all the other vaccines we give kids?”-ME
I didn’t understand.
Here is what I learned to be the main reasons we aren’t administering the vaccine to our kids:
If you are anything like me, you didn’t know anything about this cancer preventing vaccine. OR….you heard a commercial about HPV-something-or-another in the background while you were cleaning the kitchen or cooking dinner. You heard it, you moved on.
“More black women get HPV-associated vaginal cancer than women of other races.” CDC.gov
Not My Baby
No parent wants to believe their child will have sex in their teens…therefore, they don’t think their child needs the HPV vaccine at ages 11 & 12. And some parents even have the mindset that by giving their child the vaccine, it will increase their child’s sexual activity. But as parents, we have to PROTECT our babies. We haven’t been looking at the HPV vaccine through the correct lens of CANCER PREVENTION, realizing that at ages 11 & 12 are the most effective time to administer the vaccine to both boys and girls for their safety throughout their lives – even when they grow up and become sexually active adults.
“Penile cancer is another rare cancer. It is estimated that about 1,300 new cases of HPV-associated penile cancers external icon are diagnosed in the United States each year. Black and Hispanic men had higher rates of HPV-associated penile cancer than white and non-Hispanic men.” CDC.gov
Ten percent of parents polled about why their children hadn’t received the HPV vaccine stated it was because their doctor had not mentioned it to them…which is a fair point. As a parent, how do you know which vaccination to request on behalf of your child?
There are also studies that show, for the doctors who do encourage the vaccine, half are as likely to offer it to young boys compared to girls. And many times, doctors are not recommending the vaccination simply because it may be an uncomfortable conversation to have with a parent (likely the mom).
The Irony of It All
As I sat in my very first meeting with the American Cancer Society and learned all I could, a very good family friend of mine died from cancer. While I was in the meeting talking about preventing cancers, she died. This woman was beautiful and generous and loved my family as if we were her own. She paid for my first year of college textbooks and encouraged me to do better when she saw I was on the wrong path. And she attended every one of my high school basketball games.
While I sat in this meeting, enraged that there are not more people aware of this cancer prevention shot, she was in her family home drifting away to heaven.
My Bottom Line
I never want to be one of those people who make a bad decision because I didn’t take advantage of information that was available to me. I do think that there is likely a direct correlation to the vaccine not being offered to parents in lower-income communities. I do think, one day my baby will have sex (like when she is 40), and if there is something I can do to prevent cancer….I’m doing it now! Period.
I would love to hear some of your thoughts? Have you vaccinated your child? Did your doctor even tell you about the vaccination? What questions do you have about the vaccine?
For more information on HPV or the HPV vaccination head over to www.cancer.org/hpv.