Last month, which was Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, I was invited to participate on a segment of The Dr. Oz Show, focusing on HPV and cervical cancer. I was encouraged to share my story as someone who recently had been diagnosed with cancerous cells on my cervix. Though uninsured, I had received treatment over the previous two months.
When the show airs on October 11th, you will notice the following false assumptions or claims:
False Assumption: HPV and Cervical Cancer Affect Only Racially White Women
Everyone on the show was racially white, including those with HPV; the two physicians; Mark Hefti, who’d made a film about HPV; and the man who discussed the death of his daughter from cervical cancer. This is what I mean when I write that white supremacy exists in the sexuality and medical field. In the end, I did not share my experience, but there were at least five women of Color—half of them survivors of cervical cancer and activists—who could have spoken on the show.
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The fact is, HPV affects all people. Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cells were taken from her body without permission when she was found to have cervical cancer. They were the first “immortal” cells used in scientific research. Given this, how can Dr. Oz fail to represent people who are not racially white? It’s true that cancer is the leading cause of death among racially white people. But the CDC Office of Minority Health ranks deaths by various forms of cancer as the second-leading cause of death among Black people in the United States, especially breast and cervical cancer among Black women. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death among multiracial populations and Native Americans. It is the leading cause of death among Asians living in the United States (Vietnamese women have the highest rates of cervical cancer.) It is the leading cause of death among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, and among Latin@s.
False Assumption: HPV and Cervical Cancer Concern Only Heterosexual People
The physicians’ discussion of how dental dams work could have been an amazing opportunity to share important information. But Dr. Oz reacted in disgust, asking the audience, “Who would use a dental dam?” Meanwhile, many folks in the audience may have just been introduced to this barrier method. One physician remarked, “If it was between using a dental dam or not having sex, I’d choose not to have sex.” Talk about isolating folks—especially lesbian, gay, and bisexual women—who are using dental dams!
HPV and cervical cancer do not discriminate. The American Cancer Society offers information for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual women. The CDC’s Cervical Cancer Screening and HPV pages mention sexual orientation. Its Genital HPV Infection page states, “HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms.”
However, there is no mention of dental dams as barrier methods on the HPV sites for the CDC, American Social Health Association, or The National Coalition of STD Directors. While condoms are discussed on all sites, physicians, “experts,” and organizations training and doing research on HPV do not address dental dams.
False Claim: People Should Not Have Sex Until Age 21
In what kind of world does an “expert” physician advocate that folks should not have sex until after they are 21 years of age? Regardless of personal beliefs around sex and sexuality, most agree that a physician making such claims is out of touch with the reality of young people’s lives.
Nowhere on the CDC’s Genital HPV Infection fact sheet is there an argument for waiting until a magical age to engage in sexual activity. There is information about limiting partners, but not an age requirement. The CDC states:
People can also lower their chances of getting HPV by being in a faithful relationship with one partner; limiting their number of sex partners; and choosing a partner who has had no or few prior sex partners. But even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV. And it may not be possible to determine if a partner who has been sexually active in the past is currently infected. That’s why the only sure way to prevent HPV is to avoid all sexual activity.
Still, the CDC’s use of the word “faithful” is troubling because it assumes that monogomy—which is often a religious stricture—is the norm. Nevertheless, many of the survivors I spoke with at the taping had been partnered in monogamous relationships for decades, and some were pregnant when they were diagnosed with HPV, and later, cervical cancer.
False Claim: There’s No Treatment for HPV or Cervical Cancer, Just an Unreliable Vaccine
While there was no discussion of how precancerous cells or cervical, vulvar, or throat cancers are treated—and highly effective treatments are available—the HPV vaccine—which prevents the spread of HPV—was addressed. Dr. Oz announced that one expert on the show had accepted money from the pharmaceutical companies who are creating vaccinations. Nevertheless, the expert said that she would not encourage parents to consider the vaccine, especially for youth under the age of 15. The claim? We just don’t know the effects of the vaccine or how long it stays in the body. This is simply not true. What about giving folks all the information, so they can decide on their own what is best for their family and children? Women in the audience who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer in their early 20s may have supported the vaccine.
This expert mentioned that her gay son had asked her to give him the vaccine. Even after they’d discusssed its long-term effects, her son chose the vaccine, something the CDC recommends: “The vaccine is also recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger.”
The CDC also recommends the vaccine for girls ages 11 and 12:
For the HPV vaccine to work best, it is very important for preteens to get all 3 doses (shots) long before any sexual activity with another person begins. It is possible to be infected with HPV the very first time they have sexual contact with another person. Also, the vaccine produces a higher antibody that fights infection when given at this age compared to older ages.
One caveat: The CDC’s recommendation that the vaccine be given “long before any sexual activity with another person begins” ignores youth who may have been sexually assaulted, molested, or raped.
What about side effects? One expert on the show mentioned only that redness or swelling could occur at the site of the injection, while the CDC indicates that fever, fainting, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and muscle or joint pain could also occur.
There was a good discussion about anal cancer. One expert said that you do not have to engage in anal sex to be at risk for anal cancer via HPV infection, and HPV may lead to various forms of cancers based on the strain. I don’t recall any mention of Gardisil being useful for preventing anal cancer, but the CDC reports:
One vaccine (Gardasil) protects against most anal cancers. There is no routinely recommended screening test for anal or penile cancer because more information is still needed to find out if such tests can be effective. There are no data on efficacy of the vaccine to prevent cancers of the penis, but most HPV-related cancers of the penis are caused by the HPV types prevented by the vaccines.
False Assumption: Only Folks Who Have Access to Doctors and OB/GYNs Need Worry About HPV
Many people do not get regular Pap tests and HPV tests because they can’t get to the doctor or don’t have insurance or money to afford a visit. When I shared this point with the person soliciting folks to ask questions on the show, the young woman stared at me and then asked someone else for her thoughts.
A nurse, who was racially white and selected to speak on the show, said, “HPV can happen to anybody, not just the poor.” Since when do only poor people contract or transmit HPV? This remark perpetuates the idea that white people are not poor because they have whiteness to fall back on as a safety net.
False Assumption: Transgender People Don’t Exist
Language is important. The participants used the term “female” and “woman” when discussing HPV and genitalia, which excludes transgender people. The CDC has a link called transgender persons that includes a list of organizations focusing on transgender health. The American Social Health Association has a page called transgender health that notes providers should be open, respectful, and accepting of one’s “sexuality.” But using “sexuality” when “gender” is meant over-sexualizes transgender people. And when the CDC uses “women,” it may mean only people whose sex assigned at birth was “female.”
False Claim: Dr. Oz Makes a Case Against Oral Sex
Dr Oz said that you could make a “case against oral sex.” This remark does not recognize that oral sex is enjoyable or may be the only form of affection for someone who has a disability, illness, discomfort with his or her body, or a desire to avoid pregnancy.
False Assumption: There Is No Support for Survivors
The panelists did not discuss support for survivors. But there are many support networks, especially for survivors of cervical cancer, such as Tamika & Friends, Inc., an international organization I helped co-found years ago. It not only offers support to those living with cervical cancer, but also to their caregivers. It focuses on eliminating cervical cancer through HPV education. Its members are activists of Color and cervical-cancer survivors. The National Cervical Cancer Coalition offers an online support network. The Cancer Survivorship Coaching Coalition is specifically for folks working with and caring for those living with cancer. Navigating Cancer Survivorship is a national organization providing support to folks living with cancer and those caring for them, including medical providers. Stupid Cancer, I’m Too Young For This Foundation iy is especially for youth and young adults living with and affected by cancer.
Dr. Oz’s staff and chosen guests were out of touch. One thing Dr. Oz does do well is make medical terminology accessible, but the guest physicians used terms and language that were difficult to follow.
Staff members who recorded lines that were used in a montage wanted folks to “act.” Lines included “I’m so angry” and “I was so scared.” While one woman said she did not want to read the “scared” line because she did not want to discourage folks from getting tested, other women were happy to do whatever they were directed to do.
After the taping, I received a call from the same woman who’d heard me discuss my insurance experience and dismissed me. She asked if I had come to the show. When I told her I had, she apologized for not introducing herself. At six feet tall with fierce hair, I’m pretty hard to miss!