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potpourri (this and that)

Why the HPV Debate Was no Debate For me

It's not just about STD's, it's about preventing cancer.

Photo credit: Trunk

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One day several years ago, when I picked up our family iPad and the words NOODIE MAN PENUS popped up in the browser, followed in the history window by a catalog of attempts at the same search with equally hilarious spelling variations, it became clear that it was time to talk to my children about sex.

Someone, or both of them, had questions that needed answering. They are curious kids, but their realm of inquires had never entered sexual territory before. This was a brand-new frontier.

I hadn’t planned for this moment. The kids were young and I’m the type who believes in research and preparation. Leaky faucet? Don’t just drop to the floor and start messing with the pipes— read up on the subject before you dive in! So whatever preconceived notion I had of how this was going to play out definitely involved me studying how to do it, along with sharing support materials in the form of books or illustrations to help reinforce the facts in their little minds. But at that second it felt organic, so I decided to just go for it—unschooled and alone.

I stifled a nervous giggle, cleared my throat and started talking.

My tablet's search history after my kids got hold of it. Clearly, they need to work on their spelling. | Photo credit: Julie Shapiro/The Well

Their very different reactions provided for a lot of teaching moments. The 10-year-old’s embarrassment perfectly balanced the 7-year-old’s very clinical questions and the sum total of their feedback guided the flow of the conversation.

Later, as I was processing this massive milestone with my husband, I had to confront the fact that our little girls were growing up. And they needed to be armed with the right information.

Our daughters are now 10 and 13. For better or for worse, they understand that when two people love each other, they might want to have sex, and they understand the general mechanics of what that entails. They fully understand where babies come from. They understand that you can get diseases from having sex with people who have diseases and that you can’t always see said diseases. And that there are ways to protect yourself from catching those diseases. And they know that Google is a great source of information for most things, but I would really prefer they come to me if they have questions about sex, thank you very much.

What none of us saw coming was a recent conversation with their doctor about the HPV vaccine. It plucked our quiet acknowledgement of their budding sexuality out of the privacy of our home and dropped it into the middle of the world for all to see. BOOM. There it was.

“Other people can give you cancer. Think about that. It’s a lot for a kid to digest. To be honest, it’s a lot for a mom, too.”

HPV (or human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in this country among men and women. In fact, it’s so common that nearly all sexually active people get it at some point in their lives. There are different types of HPV, many of which cause unpleasant things like warts on the genitals and surrounding skin. But what most people don’t know is that HPV can cause cervical and other cancers, including those of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and mouth. Other people can give you cancer. Think about that. It’s a lot for a kid to digest. To be honest, it’s a lot for a mom, too. This is no longer theoretical. Getting the HPV vaccine means they are actively preparing themselves for something that cannot yet be imagined in any real or meaningful way. That’s the thing about HPV. It needs to be talked about BEFORE it becomes real.

Parenting is so fun.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that 11- to 12-year-old boys and girls get two doses of the HPV vaccine six to 12 months apart to protect against the cancers caused by the virus. (Gardasil 9, the HPV vaccine, is now approved for use in everyone between the ages of 9 and 45.) I surveyed a bunch of trusted advisers— friends whose opinions I value and who have children of similar ages or older— to ask whether their sons and daughters had gotten their HPV vaccines yet and how they felt about it.

Their reactions ran the gamut from, “Yes, of course” to “I’m afraid of potential side effects” to “Are you crazy? My baby’s not ready.” (For the record, there is no science pointing to terrible side effects relating to the HPV vaccine, despite what you may have read online.)

So now I’m stuck, once again, processing my children’s sexuality in new, yet more concrete ways. And this discussion is happening in homes and doctors' offices across the country. Some people may think nothing of it, some may have a hard time with the discussions, and others may not discuss it at all. But one thing is clear in my mind: If I can prevent my children from getting certain cancers, I’m sure as hell going to do it.

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Published December 7th, 2017

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