I like being healthy. Who doesn’t? To me, a woman’s confidence comes from being healthy. When I am in tip top health, I am capable and competent. I have never liked being sick. Being sick hinders me from doing the things I enjoy the most - traveling, exercising, meeting people and eating my favourite foods. All women should be able to be independent, energetic and able-bodied.
In fact, everyone, both men and women, have that right to that. Growing up, we’ve come to see certain people as the sunshine of our lives. They are the ones we care about and who matter the most, be they our mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, or even our childhood best friend.
You might not know this, but the first time I ever lost one of my best friends was at the age of 16 to an unfortunate accident. It was sad, traumatizing and shocking at the same time. Not only did it teach me to treasure my friends more, I also realized at a young age that no one should have their sunshine taken away from them.
In recent months, more than one of person in my extended circle has contracted cancer. Yes, people in their mid-30s and early 40s are being stricken with various forms of cancer. Cancer is now more prevalent in people under the age of 50 and can hit when you least expect it. Whenever the news breaks, remarks such as “Oh we never thought he would get cancer,” “She always looked so healthy!” or “No way. I cannot believe it,” are common.
As age catches up with me (I am 30 this year!) and my family members, I want to ensure that we are all healthy. So I would like to take the opportunity today to talk candidly about a women-specific cancer caused by the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. Most recently, when I spoke with my doctor, he mentioned that cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers that affect women in their prime. In our 30s, this is the time when our careers are flourishing and I know friends who are the same age and who already have 2 young kids. Cervical cancer is on the list of Top 10 cancers. But unlike the other cancers, he also mentioned that cervical cancer IS PREVENTABLE!
Regular Pap smear screenings is one of the best ways to prevent HPV and its resulting related diseases. Not only did those wise words come from my doctor, my mom concurs too. Just earlier this year, the doctors found a fairly large growth in her uterus during a routine Pap smear. Within the next two months, we scheduled a surgery to get it removed. If it wasn't for the test, we would have never found the lump and it would still be in her.
This is why I have decided to be involved in the upcoming #livemysunshinehpv campaign and speak up on HPV. Named for the people we see as the sunshine of our lives, the campaign aims to drive awareness of HPV and its prevention.
I am so glad that with the advancement of technology these days, it presents us the opportunity to save more lives. As a first line of defence against cervical cancer and other strains of HPV-related diseases, there are vaccinations that people can go for. But, I say you can never be too cautious. I am proud to say that I am vaccinated against HPV yet still go for regular Pap smear screenings with my mom.
Incidentally, if you’ve not gone for a Pap smear screening before, listen up! As part of Women’s Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Campaign organised by the Singapore Cancer Society, there are a total of 155 GPs now offering FREE Pap smear screenings from now until July 31. Channel News Asia (CNA) has also reported this on their website:
It’s my intention to help drive awareness and initiate these important questions with our friends, family and doctors. Everyone needs to take charge of their own health, but it’s even more important for us to be healthy so that we can be there for those we care about whenever they need us.
WHAT IS HPV?
I first heard of HPV and its closely related cancer - cervical cancer - a couple of years ago through reading. In the medical world, the HPV is the HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS.
Men, before you dismiss this post, the HPV, can affect both men AND women. Yes, it is true! true! It is estimated that 1 out of 2 sexually active women and men will have HPV infection at least once in their lifetime. There are many different sub-types of HPV (more than 100) – some types are high-risk (may cause cancer), while other types are low risk (non-cancer causing). About 30-40 of these sub-types can infect the genital area, and these can cause genital warts in both men and women, gynaecological cancers in women, and less commonly, anal or penile cancer in men. Other sub-types may infect the skin of the fingers, hands and face.
OUCH. None of these sound fun and neither does chemotherapy.
Before you start freaking out though, most HPV infections (90% cases) goes away on its own without any treatment. PHEW.
HOW IS HPV TRANSMITTED?
This common virus is transmitted from one person to the other via genital skin-on-skin sexual contact. Oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who has the virus will spread the virus.
THIS SNEAKY VIRUS SOME TIMES DOES NOT SHOW SYMPTOMS.
HPV can be passed even when an infected person has no signs or symptoms! Not to scare you, but when I asked the doctor what the presenting symptoms are, he said that most HPV infections occur without signs or symptoms. For instance, if you had the cold, your nose would be runny, and you may experience body aches. But when you get infected with the HPV, there may not be any outwardly presenting symptoms.
If the infection persists and doesn’t clear, that’s when you’ll run the risk of developing the genital cancers. And the worst part is that we can’t predict when our immune system is in good shape to help us clear these infections!
The scared emoji face is absolutely appropriate for this situation.
This is why it is so important to speak with your medical doctors, to be informed on the facts, and to seek out preventive measures.
But wait, you may be thinking, how is HPV related to cancer?
Remember the 100 plus sub-types of HPV strains? They persist in our bodies at any one time, and can cause infections. In about 90% of the infection cases, the virus clears by itself and the cells return to normal. In some cases, however, the infection can persist and cause the cells to grow in an abnormal way. Specifically, HPV strain 16 and 18 are aggressive and cause about 70% of cervical cancer cancers. They infect the cervix (the lower part of the womb) and cause the cells to change.
When this goes undetected by a Pap smear at an early stage, some of these abnormal cells may then develop into cervical cancer.
OKAY. SO YOU GOT MY ATTENTION.
HOW CAN I BEST PROTECT MYSELF THEN?
To clear my doubts about HPV and cervical cancer, I spoke with Dr Chris Chong from Gleneagles Hospital. If you have questions about your health, you should definitely speak with a certified doctor. During our conversation, I asked him if what I was doing to protect myself was adequate from cervical cancer, and he mentioned that I was already doing all the right things:
1) Regular Pap smear screenings: CHECK
Pap smears are also the gold standard to detect abnormal cell growth.
2) Early HPV vaccination: CHECK
If you have not been vaccinated yet, it is best to speak to your doctor to determine if you’re suitable to be vaccinated
3) STILL go for regular Pap smears even if you’ve got your HPV vaccination: CHECK
4) Use rubber protection or keep to one sexual partner
Currently in Singapore, two vaccines are approved for use by the Health Promotion Board (HPB). I have utmost faith in Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority as they do strict testing and regulation of all vaccines that can be administered to patients.
You have to understand that even if you get the vaccine, IT IS NOT a 100% protection against cervical cancer. The vaccines lower your risk of infection from SOME types of HPV. But these vaccines do not protect against ALL cancer¬ causing HPV sub¬-types. The best would be to check with your doctor what the vaccine you are getting will do for you, just like how I checked with mine, and STILL go for regular Pap smears.
WHY DO I HAVE TO GET VACCINATED THEN?
Cervical cancer is the 10th leading cause of cancer-related death in Singaporean females, with 1 woman diagnosed every 2 days.
Rather than let you or your loved ones be vulnerable to ANY type of HPV and its related diseases, prevention is the most certainly the best medicine.[CR1]
DID YOU KNOW?
In Singapore, the HPV vaccine can be administered to girls and guys as young as 9 years old.
And yes, GUYS too! Men in Singapore aged between 9 and 26 can now be vaccinated against HPV as protection against genital warts. (Reference: http://www.healthxchange.com.sg/News/Pages/Vaccine-against-HPV.aspx)
Men should also take care of their health by being vaccinated. This way they are less likely to spread HPV to their current and future partners.
WHY IS THE VACCINE RECOMMENDED AT SUCH A YOUNG AGE?
From the literature I read, they recommend vaccination starting from the age of 9.
According to Dr Chris Chong's advice, the HPV vaccines should be given prior to exposure to those strains prevented by the vaccine, in order to harness their full potential. There is no reason to wait until a teen is having sex to offer HPV vaccination to them. Preteens should receive all three doses of the HPV vaccine series long before they begin any type of sexual activity and are exposed to HPV. Also HPV vaccine produces a higher immune response in preteens than it does in older teens and young women.
There are obviously many sources that have information about HPV but I pored through various credible and approved sites to distill these facts. You can read more about HPV from Health Promotion Board’s website , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website , and World Health Organisation’s website .
I take my health very seriously. For example, I work out at least twice a week and take vitamins daily (Vitamin C, B3, B12, Calcium, Fish Oil, Evening Primrose Oil). So to me, the HPV vaccine was an easy way of protecting my health; just three doses, and I was set. Having been vaccinated years ago, I have not had to worry about another dose and had the privilege of being able to live carefree and happy. As such, I would like more teens to be aware of how they can protect themselves and live life to the fullest.
Bask in the sunshine of those closest to you and spread the word of prevention. I’ll have more updates to share on this topic and who the sunshine in my life is! #livemysunshinehpv