The Link Between HPV & Cancer Doesn’t Get Talked About Because Of Stigma, But Here’s What You Should Know

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Actor Marcia Cross, best known for her roles on Desperate Housewives and Melrose Place, is sparking an important conversation about the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cancer. CNN reported that Cross recently appeared on CBS This Morning to discuss how HPV played a role in her developing anal cancer, as well as with her husband being diagnosed with throat cancer.

Both are now in remission, and Cross said she is speaking out to destigmatize anal cancer, much the same way the late actor Farah Fawcett — who died from anal cancer in 2009 — did, and bring attention to the link between HPV and certain cancers.

"I know that there are people who are ashamed. You have cancer. Should you then also feel like ashamed like you did something bad because it took up residence in your anus?" Cross said.

Human papillomavirus is a group of over 200 viruses, some of which can be spread through sexual contact, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported. The viruses fall into two categories, low and high risk. Although low-risk HPV viruses can cause warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat, they don't cause cancer. On the other hand, "High-risk HPVs can cause several types of cancer. There are about 14 high-risk HPV types. Two of these, HPV16 and HPV18, are responsible for most HPV-related cancers," the NCI explained.

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What's more, the NCI stated that almost all sexually active people have some form of HPV, and half of these people have a high-risk form of the virus. That being said, your immune system usually keeps the virus in check, and only a small percentage of people ever develop problems.

"Sometimes HPV infections are not successfully controlled by your immune system. When a high-risk HPV infection persists for many years, it can lead to cell changes that, if untreated, may get worse over time and become cancer," the NCI said. Cancers that can stem from HPV include cervical cancer, oropharyngeal cancers (like Cross's husband had), anal cancer, penile cancer, vaginal cancer, and vulvar cancer.

While there is now a vaccine for HPV, women must be under 26 to get it and men must be under 21, according to the CDC. If you missed the window, there are still things you can do to prevent HPV-related cancers. And even if you've been vaccinated, it's still important to undergo regular screenings for cervical cancer during your annual gynecological visit.

Even though the vaccine can prevent new HPV infections, it can't prevent diseases from existing ones. The NCI recommends that women ages 21 to 29 have a pap smear every three years (more often if the results are abnormal), and women over 30 get tested for HPV every five years.

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If you do have an abnormal pap smear, Planned Parenthood said on its website that further steps can be taken to prevent cancer. This includes cryotherapy, a treatment that freezes and removes precancerous cells from the cervix and loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP), an electric current that also removes precancerous cells.

While getting the HPV vaccine is the best defense, those who can't get it should use condoms and dental damns when having vaginal, anal, and oral sex, Planned Parenthood advised. However, even if you take every precaution, you can still contract HPV from skin-to-skin contact. This is why it's important to get an annual exam.

"For the high-risk types of HPV that can eventually lead to cancer, finding abnormal cell changes through regular pap tests and/or HPV tests is the best way you can prevent cervical cancer," Planned Parenthood noted. If you don't have health insurance, you can get an exam at Planned Parenthood for free, or at a reduced cost. Because when it comes to preventing HPV-related cancers, prevention is the best defense.