alking into the cancer centre in Ottawa, Erin Hendrick couldn’t help but feel that she was the youngest person there. She had taken good care of her body, making healthy choices and staying up-to-date with her Pap tests and medical exams. She thought she was doing everything right. But at 32, she got a diagnosis that changed everything: she had cervical cancer.

“You never think it’s going to be you,” says Hendrick. She was faced with a disease that claims the lives of 380 women every year, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, and although she was scared at the time, she is now using her experience to spread a message of courage and preventive action.

For Hendrick, it all began with an irregular Pap test, which led to a routine procedure to remove the abnormal cells. However, when she began having spotting and cramping, Hendrick knew something was wrong. Despite her gynecologist’s assurance that her symptoms were normal, she took her concerns to her family doctor, and an ultrasound was ordered. Their discovery of a large tumour sitting on her cervix likely saved her life — all thanks to Hendrick’s proactive approach to her health.

Going viral

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection, which can result in oral or genital cancers, genital warts, or, in many cases, no symptoms at all. Identifying the cancer-causing virus has given physicians the ability to take proactive action with immunizations.

“Instead of trying to find early disease, we have the opportunity to entirely prevent it,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

Hendrick had been vigilant about getting regular Pap tests, but originally thought the vaccine was only effective for young girls — until Dr. Blake explained how it works for a wide range of people and ages.

“The greatest impact is obtained by vaccinating younger children, 9 to 14, but there is data to show that it is also effective in women up to age 45, in women who have had abnormal Pap smears, and in boys and men,” says Dr. Blake.

The latest form of the HPV vaccine —approved for women (ages 9 to 45) and men (ages 9 to 26) — protects against nine strains of the virus. Together, these strains are responsible for 90 percent of cervical cancer cases, 75 percent of HPV-related vulvar, vaginal and anal cancers, and more than 90 percent of genital warts.

A survivor’s son

Hendrick got vaccinated after her diagnosis in hopes that it will help prevent other cancer-causing strains of the all-too-common virus, and plans to arrange the same for her 10-year-old son. Aside from cervical cancer, HPV is also linked to penile, anal, and oral cancer in men.

Hendrick says her son will be immunized this year. “I think it’s important for him, but also because of the potential for spreading a strain of HPV that could cause cervical cancer for someone else,” she says.

Her message for others

After enduring radiation, chemotherapy, and multiple side effects — including unbelievable hot flashes from early menopause — Hendrick saw her cancer disappear last year, leaving her with a passion for spreading awareness of HPV and cervical cancer protection.

Her message? Get informed, get tested, and get vaccinated. “You have to take care of it yourself,” says the cancer survivor. “No one is going to force you.”

As a mother, Hendrick says she wants to combat the stigma surrounding gynecological cancers and encourage conversations among women and their families: “I think we need to stop making cervical cancer a taboo topic for the next generation.”

New research from across Canada strongly indicates that over the past 10 years, the HPV vaccine has safely and effectively lowered the risk of having the precursor to cancer. “We can wipe cervical cancer out, because we have the vaccine to enable us to,” says Dr. Blake.