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Everyone is talking about my daughter’s cervix. Well, not really everyone and the hot political/medical topic at the moment isn’t just my daughter’s cervix but those of sixth-grade girls all around the country. Thanks to the recent Republican presidential debates, politicians and parents alike are abuzz about whether the government has the right to require 11- and 12-year-old tween girls to be vaccinated to prevent the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
At one of the recent GOP debates, Texas Governor Rick Perry presented himself as the “I’m just worried about cancer” candidate when asked about his state’s mandate that all girls in his state receive the three-shot vaccine before they enter sixth-grade. Of course, he later mentioned the fact that his former chief of staff is a lobbyist for the vaccine’s manufacturer. With that revelation, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann saw her opening to position herself as the champion of American girls who should be protected from what she claims is an unsafe drug being peddled as political favoritism.
Now, as the person who blogs as PunditMom, I’ve got plenty to say about the political upshot and motivations of all this, as well as the nonsensical argument that a shot is going to give our kids the green light to start having sex in their early teens because they won’t have to worry about getting one sexually transmitted disease.
But taking a step back from all this political rhetoric, the issue of cervical cancer, HPV and the vaccine that’s designed to protect against it is extremely personal for me for two reasons.
First, I was diagnosed with HPV while I was in law school. I had my usual, annual Pap smear and assumed, at age 26, that it would be normal as it always had. But I received a note in mail that said my test had come back positive and that I had a Type II dysplasia. I had no idea what all that medical jargon meant, I’d never heard of human papillomavirus or that it was a sexually transmitted.
All of a sudden I was staring at some pre-cancerous cells in the face that had to be removed. In a way I was lucky -- I didn’t have health insurance then as a poor law student, but I had access to an annual free Pap test and birth control through the university health center, something that many women today can’t afford.
The second reason this explosion of cervical cancer and HPV vaccines as the topic du jour is important to me is that I’m now the mother of a sixth-grade girl. And she attends school in place that also mandates her receiving the HPV vaccine. As someone who’s dealt with HPV and a cancer scare, part of me says it’s a no brainer to have my daughter inoculated. But then I look at my 11-year-old and wonder -- should I do it? Logically, I know it’s a good thing, but it’s hard to put the anecdotal reports of negative side effects out of my brain. And then I think, “But you didn’t worry about that with all the other shots she’s had since she was a baby -- why now?”
As a mom and a former investigative journalist, I’ve done my homework and I’ve asked pretty much every doctor I have about their thoughts, whether they’re pediatricians or not. And they all say the HPV vaccine is safe, though some, like me, are waiting until their children are closer to 13 before they start the vaccine. I trust all of these doctors and I know they wouldn’t steer me wrong. So why am I still hesitating? Maybe because it’s relatively new (it was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006) compared to those for all the other childhood diseases we inoculate for.
As I sit on the fence, I remember what one of my best friends told me about a conversation she had with her brother -- a pediatrician -- when it came to making a decision about the HPV vaccine for her own tween daughter.
“There’s a shot that will prevent cancer. Think about it. We’ve all been waiting forever for someone to discover something that will cure or prevent any kind of cancer. It’s a shot to prevent cancer -- what are you waiting for?”
Ultimately, I know that my husband and I will have our daughter start the three-dose vaccine in the not too distant future because if there is a cancer we can help prevent, we want to do that. But navigating the intellectual and the emotional sides on this one has been tough, even after going through my own cervical cancer scare.
Joanne Bamberger writes about the intersection of motherhood and politics at her blog, PunditMom. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (Bright Sky Press, 2011).