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HPV Cancer

What’s the Problem?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that can cause cancer in men and women. HPV is so common that nearly all men and women get it at some point in their lives. Though many HPV infections go away on their own, some HPV infections don’t go away (persist). HPV infections that don’t go away can cause changes in the cells in the infected area, which can lead to cancer. There is no way to know which people will develop cancer.

HPV causes most cervical cancers, as well as some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). Every year in the United States, over 27,000 men and women are diagnosed with a cancer caused by HPV. Each year in the U.S. more than 2,000,000 women endure invasive testing and 300,000 women go through excision (removal) treatment for lesions (changes in the cells) on the cervix that can develop into cancers. Testing and treatment for these “precancers” can have lasting effects such as the inability for a woman to carry a baby to term which can lead to preterm delivery, low birthweight, and newborn death.

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Who’s at Risk?

Everyone. HPV is so common that nearly all men and women will be infected with HPV in their lifetime. Most people never know that they have been infected and may give HPV to an intimate partner without knowing it. About 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year.

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. HPV vaccination can prevent the majority of HPV cancers and precancers from ever developing. All kids who are 11 or 12 years old should get the HPV vaccine series of shots to protect against HPV. Teen boys and girls who did not start or finish the HPV vaccine series when they were younger should get it as soon as possible; the longer they wait, the less likely the vaccine series will protect them. Young women can get HPV vaccine through age 26, and young men can get vaccinated through age 21. The vaccine is also recommended for any man who has sex with men through age 26, and for men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get HPV vaccine when they were younger. Women who have had the HPV vaccine should still start getting screened for cervical cancer when they reach age 21.

The Bottom Line

  • Every year in the U.S., HPV infections cause over 27,000 cancers in men and women, and nearly 2,000,000 cases of cervical precancer in women.
  • HPV vaccination can prevent the majority of HPV cancers and precancers from ever developing.
  • Preteens should get HPV vaccine at ages 11-12 to get protected before they are exposed to the virus.

Case Example

Jacquelyn, a cancer survivor and mother of two preschoolers, knows firsthand how devastating HPV cancers can be. She had been married to her husband for 15 years and was planning to have more children, which she soon realized wasn’t a possibility. Soon after her second child was born, Jacquelyn was diagnosed with cervical cancer and needed a total hysterectomy.

Although they caught Jacquelyn’s cervical cancer early, she still has medical appointments taking time away from her family, friends, and work. “Every time the doctor calls, I hold my breath until I get the results,” said Jacquelyn. “Cancer is always in the back of my mind.”

HPV vaccines work best when given at ages 11-12. The connection between vaccinating kids now to protect them from cancer later isn’t lost on Jacquelyn.  She made sure both her children were protected with HPV vaccine as soon as they turned 11. She tells everyone to get their children the HPV vaccine to protect them from these kinds of cancers.

  • Page last reviewed: June 6, 2016
  • Page last updated: June 6, 2016
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