Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 17 October 2019

'I didn't know how vicious the HPV virus can be'

Experience: Emily Hourican says treatment is invasive, painful and debilitating
Experience: Emily Hourican says treatment is invasive, painful and debilitating

Emily Hourican

Author Emily Hourican got the all-clear from HPV-related mouth cancer in 2016. She says she had no idea how vicious the virus could be...

"Before being diagnosed with HPV-related mouth cancer in 2015, I knew little about this virus.

"I could have told you what it stands for (human papillomavirus). If pushed, I could probably have dredged up that it is implicated in genital warts and - really working hard here - that it might be connected to cervical cancer.

"I had no idea that head and neck cancers can be caused by HPV, or that this is rising very fast. I certainly didn't know that HPV is responsible for around 5pc of cancers worldwide. Or that the virus can lie dormant in the body, for 10 or even 20 years, doing nothing, and then, for reasons no one yet understands, can suddenly kick off and cause terrible trouble.

"I used to think you could get HPV from kissing. Now I know that you need more intimate sexual contact than that. I also know that pretty much all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, along with many other genital and anal cancers.

"I know that people don't much like talking about this and I can see why, but I also know that we badly need to.

"I didn't know that pretty much everyone catches the virus at some stage in their lives - conservative estimates suggest that 90pc of us will have it - and neither did I know that for the majority of people, their immune systems will clear the virus without any problem, but for some, and again for no reason that we know of, their bodies will give it safe harbour and eventually succumb to it.

"Most of all, I didn't understand how vicious the virus can be. How it attacks the most delicate tissue in the body and causes tumours that grow, tucked away where no one can see them. How these tumours can cause death at worst; at best, treatment that is invasive, painful and debilitating.

"I didn't know that HPV can override all other considerations of general good health, age and genetics, meaning that even young, fit, healthy people with no history of cancer in their families - me, basically - can one day go to hospital for a routine check-up and be told 'you have cancer'.

"I also know there is a vaccine to prevent HPV infection and I dearly hope the parents of those girls - and soon boys - who are eligible for it will actively look for the best, most credible advice they can find and make an informed decision around protecting their children.

I know through my own experience that HPV cancer is, if you are lucky, treatable. More importantly, it is preventable.

Irish Independent

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