An Uncomplicated, Straightforward Choice

1 Week Prior to Doctor Appointment

Zoe: “I don’t want to get a shot. Will I have to get a shot?”

Me: “Yes, you will have to get at least one shot.”

Zoe: “I DON’T WANT TO GET A SHOT? Why? Why do I have to get a shot?”

Me: “To keep you healthy.”

Zoe: “But I don’t want to get a shot!”

Repeat, at least twice an hour, all waking hours.

1 Day Prior to Doctor Appointment

Zoe: “Mama, please!  Please, I don’t want to get a shot.  Why do I need a shot?”

Me: “To keep you healthy.  I know you don’t want one.  No one wants to get a shot. But it is important.”

Zoe: “But why?  WHY? I’ll do anything.  Please I don’t want to get a shot!”

Me: “It isn’t negotiable.  You have to get a shot to keep you healthy. “

Zoe: “Please! I don’t want a shot!”

Repeat, at least 4 times an hour, all waking hours.

Day of the Doctor Appointment, In the Car, On the Way There

Zoe: “Why?  Why?! Why, do I have to get a shot?  Can I please not get it?”

I pull the car to the side of the road.  I am exasperated, annoyed and exhausted by this discussion.  My daughter has just turned 11 and we are on the way to her well child exam, where I know she will be the recipient of at least one shot.  I know this because, at 11 years old, she is now eligible to receive the HPV vaccination. And I know that I will be requiring this vaccination for her.  

My daughter was just 8 years old when I was diagnosed with Stage 2 cervical cancer.  I never told her that I had cancer.  I never used the actual word cancer to describe what I was going through.  I was concerned that it would cause her more fear than I wanted for her. So I told her and her 6-year-old brother that I was sick.  I’d point to my lower abdomen and say that I had a problem in my tummy. I told them I needed surgery and  medicine that seemed to make me sicker, but was actually helping me to get better.  Both of my young children watched me suffer through chemotherapy, internal and external radiation, four surgeries, multiple ER visits, and many hospital stays.  

What I experienced fuels this effortless decision to get protect my daughter, and eventually my son, from HPV.

HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer.  80% of people will contract at least one strand of HPV during their lifetime. Most people will fight off this virus on their own.  Others will not be so lucky, and the HPV will cause precancerous or cancerous cells to grow.

Me: “Do you remember when I was sick?  Do you remember how much pain I was in and how you had to visit me in the hospital?  Do you remember that when you visited me I had a needle in my arm?  That needle had to stay there.  For days.  For almost a week.  I had to sleep with it in my arm.  Do you remember how hard it was for all of us?  How we had to leave our apartment and live with Grandma and Grandpa?  How I couldn’t take care of you?”  I hated reminding her of this.  I hated reminding myself of this.  I wondered if this was the right thing to say. “The shot they are going to give you today, the one you don’t want, it will protect you from getting the sickness I had.  This shot will protect you so you won’t have to go through the sickness that I had.  This shot will prevent you from possibly needing many others and getting poked with many more needles.  That is why you have to get it.  That is why it is not a choice.  That is why we are doing it.”

Zoe: “Then why didn’t you get it when you were a kid?”

Me: “Doctors didn’t have this shot when I was kid.  I wish they had, but they didn’t.  You are lucky that they have it now.  You are lucky to be able to get this shot!”

Zoe: “Will Isaac have to get it?”

Me: “100%.”

Isaac is currently 9 years old. My insurance will cover him receiving the HPV vaccination when he turns 11.  And he will, 100%, be getting this vaccination as well. 

The choice to vaccinate my son against HPV is just as uncomplicated and straightforward as the choice to vaccinate my daughter.  HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection but we now have a safe and effective vaccine that can prevent it.  Most men who get HPV never develop symptoms and, like women, the infection usually goes away completely by itself. However, if HPV does not go away, it can cause genital warts or certain kinds of cancer, including head or neck cancer. 

Someday, my 9-year-old son will have a partner.  Someday he will be sexually active.  I want to protect not only my son, but his future partner as well.  HPV is spread through skin to skin contact, so even if he and his partner practice safe sex, there is a high likelihood that if not vaccinated he would spread HPV.  HPV can cause not only cervical cancer in women, but penile cancer, anal cancer, throat, tongue, and tonsil cancers.  And while women can be screened during their annual pap exams for HPV, there is no test for HPV in men. And because men who carry HPV show no sign or symptoms of the virus, he would never know if he had the virus.  So, my son, if not vaccinated, could unknowingly pass this virus on to his partner, and could potentially be at risk for cancer himself.

Many people wish for a cure for cancer.  People discuss and post prayers and thoughts for cures all the time.  But we have a vaccine now that can prevent specific types of cancer from ever occurring!  Isn’t that better than a cure?  If you could prevent your child from having to suffer, why would you ever make the choice not to? The risks for the HPV vaccination are negligible, especially when compared to the likelihood of contracting the virus, and the horror of actual cancer treatments. Choosing to vaccinate both my daughter and my son against HPV is a no-brainer.

In the doctor’s office

Zoe: “I don’t want to get this shot.  But I know I have to.”

Me: “Yes.  You have to, because I love you to the moon and back, and I never ever want you to be as sick as I was.”

And I will say the same thing to my son when it is his turn to get the HPV vaccination.

Ana Reyes lives in Mountain View, CA with her 2 children and supportive boyfriend. She works as a mentor teacher for new special education teachers. She was diagnosed with Stage 2 cervical adenocarcinoma at the age of 37 and is passionate about spreading the word about the HPV vaccine as cancer prevention.