Young Woman Champions Early Screening, HPV Vaccine Against Cervical Cancer
Dora Chaisson knew something was wrong—a period with excessive bleeding was not normal. Another indicator was when she passed out at work. Her boss called 9-1-1 and rushed her to a nearby hospital where she was released without a diagnosis.
It wasn’t until she went to Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital where doctors ran several tests that Chaisson, 34, learned she had cervical cancer.
“Honestly, I didn’t have a reaction when they told me I had cancer,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, this is what I have to deal with now. Let’s start now.’”
Chaisson is one of 12,000 women in the United States diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Cervical cancer forms in the tissue of the cervix and is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).
In its early stages, cervical cancer has no symptoms; that’s why a regular Pap test, which serves as a screening test for cervical cancer, is important. As the cancer progresses, symptoms can include pelvic pain, irregular spotting, post coital bleeding or a bad smelling discharge.
That’s why doctors, and now Chaisson, encourage every woman to get a Pap test. All women should start getting regular exams at age 21.
“If a woman gets an abnormal Pap test, they follow up with their doctor as soon as possible. Although often a treatable infection can be the cause, other times the Pap can detect precancerous changes that can be cured if addressed in time,” says Lois Ramondetta, M.D., chief, Gynecologic Oncology, LBJ Hospital and professor, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “It’s important to get all the information. HPV is very predominant; almost all people will be exposed at some point in their lives.”
As prevention, Chaisson’s daughter received the HPV vaccine, which is a series of vaccinations recommended for boys and girls—at the age 11 or 12 for girls and women through age 26 and for boys and men through age 21.
The HPV vaccine protects against certain high-risk types of HPV that can cause cervical, oropharyngeal, vulvar, vaginal, penile and anal cancers. Currently, vaccination rates are 40 percent for girls getting all three shots and 20 percent for boys.
“We want to reach the Healthy People (a national health promotion and disease prevention) vaccination goal of 80 percent by 2020,” Ramondetta says. “We must think of HPV as a preventable cancer. We can prevent unnecessary suffering, loss of fertility, early menopause and emotional trauma with a simple vaccination.”
Chaisson’s positive outlook is helping her through her 16 rounds of chemotherapy and 24 radiation therapy treatments.
“Don’t get depressed if you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer,” she says. “You’ll have good and bad days, but be positive—we can beat this.”