By Courtney Johnson
(NNPA) – Tina Catherine Johnson sat in the far chair in her family’s living room in the Simple City neighborhood of NE Washington DC, her hands folded in her lap. Her two brothers 9 and 10 were in tears. Their mother, Carrie Petty-Johnson, attempted to console them. But Tina, 11, continued to stare blankly and fiddle her thumbs.
“I was in shock,” Tina recounted. “I was young and didn’t fully understand what was going on. All I knew was that my mother was sick and probably would not recover.”
Four months later, cervical cancer claimed Petty-Johnson’s life. Tina was 12. She faced growing up without a mother, joining approximately 13 percent of women in the U.S. who grow up without mothers. Today at age 45, Tina thinks a lot about Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which women’s health experts blame for almost all forms of cervical cancer.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. There are more than 40 HPV types that can infect the genital areas, mouth, and throat of women and men. Experts say HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. But it can also be transmitted during oral sex. A person can have HPV even if years have passed since he or she had sexual contact with an infected person.
Condoms lessen the possibility of infection, but they do not eliminate it, according to The Nation Cancer Institute. The best way to prevent infection is a long-term, monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner for those who choose to be sexually active. Abstinence is the best prevention for others, the Institute says.
The medical facts website, emedtv.com, reports that 90 percent of HPV-infected people show no symptoms. Similarly, cervical cancer has no symptoms in its early stages. But by age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have been infected with genital HPV infection, the website says.
Ashley Carter, 29, of Bladensburg, MD, is facing the same battle as Tina’s mother. “I was devastated when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer,” Carter shares. “I was also really mad at myself because I could have prevented this, if I had noticed symptoms or gotten the HPV vaccine, Gardasil.”
Nine years ago this month, Tamika Felder was an award-winning TV producer in DC. During a routine Pap smear visit at 25, doctors told her she needed to undergo an immediate radical hysterectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy treatment to save her from cervical cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Felder recalled, adding that she felt her heart sink into her chest. “I was devastated and felt defeated.”
Felder, who is now 34, has taken what she once called a tragedy and turned it into a life of service to others. In 2005, she founded Tamika & Friends, Inc., a national nonprofit organization aimed at empowering women with information and support about HPV and cervical cancer.
On Saturday, May 15, the organization is sponsoring a 5K Walk at RFK Memorial Stadium, 2400 East Capitol Street, SE, from 8 to 11:00 am. The goal: To raise awareness about cervical cancer and its link to HPV. The organization will use the proceeds to support cervical cancer survivors.
Tamika & Friends joins several other advocates of increased public awareness, testing for, prevention and treatment of STDs, HPV and cervical cancer. As April, STD Awareness Month, comes to a close, MTV, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are supporting a national “Get Yourself Tested” campaign to encourage young people to get tested.
“Because neither HPV nor cervical cancer immediately present symptoms, it’s important that preventive measures be taken,” said Dr. Jacqueline Walters of Castillo and Walter’s OB/GYN in Duluth and Dunwoody, Georgia. “Women should regularly visit their gynecologist for pap tests once they become sexually active. Early detection is essential to prevention.”
Gardasil, a controversial vaccine recommended for 11 to 12-year-old girls enrolled in the DC Public School System, is the best weapons on the marked now.
“I’m dealing with this cancer the best way that I know, but I will forever think, ‘what if,’” Carter says fighting tears. “‘What if I had gotten the vaccine’ or ‘what if I had gone to the doctor sooner for a regular pap.’ Maybe now I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
She said, But what hurts Carter most is the knowledge that there are so many young people that do not know their HPV status and do not care to learn.
Special to the NNPA from the District Chronicles