No Such Thing as “Risk-Free”

In a recent guest editorial that I penned for BioCentury, I referenced that a parent’s choice whether or not to vaccinate their child against the human papillomavirus (HPV) isn’t a “risk-free” choice. Every drug has risks – consider the following statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “although medicines can make you feel better and help you get well, it’s important to know that all medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter, have risks as well as benefits.” I would also point out that there are risks in forgoing a medication.

Let’s take a look at the HPV vaccine’s side-effects according to the prescribing information for Gardasil® 9 (Human Papillomavirus 9-valent Vaccine, Recombinant). The most common side effects include pain, swelling, redness, itching, bruising, bleeding, and a lump where your child got the shot, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sore throat. These are adverse events disclosed by the sponsor (Merck & Co., Inc.) to the FDA from completed clinical trials of Gardasil 9. Since licensure in 2006, over 270 million doses of HPV vaccines have been distributed and the sponsors are obligated to report any new side effects to the FDA.

What’s that you say? You don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry? The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), an independent expert clinical and scientific advisory body that provides the World Health Organization (WHO) with scientifically rigorous advice on vaccine safety issues of potential global importance, first reviewed the safety data for HPV vaccines in 2007 and subsequently in 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. In each period, the GACVS examined various vaccine specific safety issues, such as links to Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and other autoimmune safety issues. No other adverse reactions have been identified and GACVS considers HPV vaccines to be extremely safe. According to the WHO, there are now accumulated safety studies that include several million persons and which compare the risks for a wide range of health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated subjects.

Early on, the GACVS was presented with signals related to anaphylaxis and syncope related to the HPV vaccines. According to the GACVS, the risk of anaphylaxis from HPV vaccines has been characterized as less than 2 cases per 1,000,000 doses, and syncope was established as a common anxiety or stress- related reaction to the injection. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that needs to be treated right away with an epinephrine (adrenaline) shot. Anaphylaxis is rare, and most people recover from it. Syncope, also known as fainting, is a loss of consciousness and muscle strength characterized by a fast onset, short duration, and spontaneous recovery. It is caused by a decrease in blood flow to the brain, usually from low blood pressure. For these reasons, the prescribing information for Gardasil 9 recommends observation of the individual for 15 minutes after administration.

Next, let’s consider the risks of not getting vaccinated against HPV. Again, according to the prescribing information for Gardasil 9, the vaccine helps protect girls and women ages 9 to 26 against cervical, vaginal, vulvar, and anal cancers and genital warts caused by 9 types of HPV. Gardasil 9 also helps protect boys and men ages 9 to 26 against anal cancer and genital warts caused by those same HPV types. Accordingly, individuals who do not get vaccinated against HPV are at risk for the aforementioned cancers and genital warts.

In addition, the 9 types of HPV that infect the genital areas can also infect the mouth and throat (called oropharyngeal cancers). HPV is thought to cause 70% of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States, with HPV type 16 causing 60% of all oropharyngeal cancers. The HPV vaccine was originally developed to prevent cervical and other less-common genital cancers and has been shown in clinical studies to prevent cervical and other precancers. However, HPV vaccines could also prevent oropharyngeal cancers because the vaccines prevent infection with HPV types that can cause oropharyngeal cancers.

HPV vaccines were not available until I was age 38, which is well-beyond the upper age limit of 26 when the vaccines are considered effective. In late 2015, I was diagnosed with poorly differentiated, oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, HPV type 16 related. My three treatment regimens thus far have included: chemoradiation, immunotherapy and currently chemotherapy.

Side-effects that Michael Becker has experienced from cancer and its treatment (click image to enlarge)

My diagnosis is terminal, so “death” would be the primary side effect from the disease that I would gladly forgo in favor of any of the aforementioned HPV vaccine side effects. Setting my grim humor aside for the moment, there are more than a dozen other side-effects that I have personally experienced to date from either cancer or its treatment (see accompanying image for details). And these side-effects don’t include others that I haven’t personally experienced, such as kidney damage.

I’m an advocate of HPV vaccination and strongly encourage parents to speak with a physician when it comes to deciding whether or not to vaccinate a child. The purpose of this blog post is to underscore that deciding not to vaccinate against HPV isn’t a risk-free decision. In my experience, the diagnosis of any one of the six cancers resulting from HPV infection is associated with plenty of important risks for parents to also consider.

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The Space Between

The purpose of my blog and entries is multifaceted. Some are designed to entertain, while others focus on education and enlightenment for those suffering from cancer and the people who surround them. Others are simply updates on my disease for family and friends.

I don’t consider myself an optimist or pessimist, but rather a realist. Accordingly, I prefer to let the facts in my blog speak for themselves and let you, the reader, decide if the glass is half full or half empty.

For me, life is usually viewed in absolutes. Things are either black or white; rarely, if ever, shades of gray. And I like it this way…nice and neat. This is probably why uncertainty, which falls into the shades of gray zone, doesn’t sit well with me. Unfortunately, living with a terminal cancer diagnosis introduces a fair amount of uncertainty – almost from day one.

It starts with waiting for the initial diagnosis. Is it cancer or not? Usually this is a black or white analysis. The diagnosis of cancer then leads to a myriad of uncertainties. The patient wants to know details about the treatment options, their side effects and quality of life, and whether the potential for cure exists. Lots of gray zone issues suddenly appear.

Although clearly outside of my comfort zone, I’ve been able to successfully navigate the sea of uncertainties for the past two years with one notable exception: how much time do I have remaining? Or at the very least, how much time remaining where my quality of life allows me to function as a productive member of society?

Right now, life isn’t horrible. Sure, I suffer side effects from weekly chemotherapy treatment, such as loss of appetite and fatigue. And I lost my hair but save a ton of money on haircuts and shampoo. Nevertheless, I’m able to enjoy time with family and friends and keep busy with my mission to help raise awareness of the human papillomavirus (HPV), six cancers that are directly linked to HPV, and the available vaccines that could prevent such cancers for others in the future.

Enduring weekly chemotherapy is made easier given the fact that my tumors decreased in size according to my last imaging procedure. Exactly what the tumor regression means in terms of extending my life is unknown. Reality check – published scientific literature still favors that celebrating the New Year isn’t a likely event for me.

However, every patient is different – and there is one absolute truth in life: no one knows exactly when or how they will die. While perhaps the exception versus the norm, we’ve all heard dramatic stories about people living longer than originally expected. My realist nature makes me reject such anecdotes, but it does allow me to consider the fact that progress in treating cancer is advancing at a rapid pace and perhaps my existing treatments will buy me just enough time to receive some new exciting approach that keeps my disease in check.

In the interim, my greatest challenge is what to do with the “space between.” I’m talking about the period between now and when I eventually die, which could be measured in as little as one, two, or three months or as many as several years. No one knows for sure.

For example, I could start to write a new book. Although having recently gone through that process, it is a tremendous investment of time and focus away from spending quality time with family and friends. While it could be a worthwhile sacrifice, I just couldn’t bear the thought of embarking down that road again without knowing that I had sufficient time to finish it.

My other passion, photography, is made challenging since I really don’t know how much energy or how I’m going to be feeling on any given day. This makes scheduling photo sessions weeks in advance to allow adequate preparation time a risky proposition at best. For example, I never could have predicted ending up in the hospital on three separate occasions in July/August (including a trip to the intensive care unit). While life has been quite calm as of late (thank goodness…) there is always the chance that something else is lurking around the corner.

Besides, I was already able to complete two significant bucket-list items this year with the publication of both my memoir A Walk with Purpose and large format, high-quality, coffee table photography book, Strength, Confidence, & Beauty. In the near future, could I really top what I’ve already accomplished in each area?

Equally important to projects that produce legacy materials of a life well-lived, there is that pesky task of providing income to help support my family. I haven’t quite found an appropriate place on my resume for “terminal cancer patient” and I suspect few employers would find that an attractive attribute. On the flip side, freelance work or part-time positions might be workable solutions.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not laying on the couch every day pondering the “space between” and wallowing in depression. I’ve been keeping plenty busy promoting my books and taking advantage of the plethora of amazing media outlets that express an interest in helping me with my HPV awareness mission. Perhaps that is simply how I’m meant to fill the space between?

At first, I thought if I could simply touch one person’s life through my efforts then I made a difference. But I’ve been inundated with messages from family, friends, and complete strangers who share personal stories about having their children vaccinated for HPV as a direct result of my efforts. Is there anything else I could do that would be as gratifying?

If you or a loved one is affected by cancer, I’d love to hear how you deal with the space between. Rather than messaging me directly, please feel free to comment on this post so that others can benefit from your shared experience.

Calm

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog post, so I wanted to provide a brief update. The good news is that life has been rather uneventful – no trips to the emergency room, no new side effects, etc. Let’s face it, we were due for a break!

Last week was not only the Labor Day Holiday but also a scheduled break from chemotherapy to allow my blood counts, etc. to recover. As a result, as of Monday morning I was feeling better than any time in recent memory. My appetite has been good and my energy level afforded us an opportunity to take our puppy Humphrey with us to walk around a local art fair this past weekend.

This week, however, I’m back to week #1 of my treatment schedule starting with a doublet of chemotherapies (paclitaxel and carboplatin). For me, the carboplatin results in greater side effects, particularly stomach upset, decreased appetite, and fatigue. My typical four week treatment “cycle” looks like this:

Week #1: paclitaxel + carboplatin
Week #2: paclitaxel only
Week #3: paclitaxel only
Week #4: holiday/break (no treatment)
Lather, rinse & repeat

Before this week’s chemo appointment, I had time and energy to visit with another one of my social media connections for the first time (@BursatilBiotech). She traveled from Argentina to New York with a relative for vacation and we had arranged a brief meeting in the morning while she was in town.

@BursatilBiotech and Michael Becker

My next chemo break falls during the first week of October. At that time, I’ll have my periodic imaging procedure to see if the cancer is continuing to respond favorably to the treatment. Based on improved air flow to my lungs, I’m hopeful for some continued good news.

In the meantime, I’ve been keeping busy with my mission to raise awareness for the human papillomavirus (HPV), its direct link to six cancers, and the available vaccines that can prevent HPV. For example, my guest editorial on the topic appears in this week’s issue of BioCentury and is freely available to view on their website by clicking here. In addition, last Thursday I did a television interview with CURE Today and you can view the first segment on their website by clicking here. I’m so very grateful to these and other media outlets that have provided me with a platform to advance my mission!

Most importantly, today is another gift that I will truly treasure…as I get to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday. Happy 17th birthday Megan!!