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Pamela Tom Headshot

All Right, All Right, All Right!

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Those are the three words that actor Matthew McConaughey is famous for after first uttering them in his 1993 movie debut, Dazed and Confused.

Well, all right... let's talk about something that's not "all right."

Matthew McConaughey continues to be the favorite to take home the golden statue for Best Actor in a Leading Role as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club at the Academy Awards on March 2.

Tough performance.

But when I watched Mr. McConaughey's Golden Globes acceptance speech and he said the film had been turned down 86 times before the financing came through, I couldn't help but think about the taboos that still exist today for other sexually transmitted diseases. Namely, HPV.

According to director Jean-Marc Vallée, a Canadian investor pulled the financing just seven weeks before the cameras were scheduled to roll.

"The guy in the end got scared," Vallée told the New York Times. In The Hollywood Reporter, producer Robbie Brenner remembers why: "They said: 'AIDS isn't hot-button anymore...'"

AIDS. Homosexuality. Transgender. These once tough-to-talk-about topics are now part of everyday conversations.

Yet today we're fighting the same uphill battle with HPV, the human papillomavirus. It's so common, the CDC reports that, "approximately 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV. About 14 million people become newly infected each year. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually-active men and women will get at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives."

Not everyone who gets HPV will get cancer, and doctors are currently studying why some people's immune systems don't fight off the virus.

But what's really scary is that a 2011 study by the American Society of Clinical Oncologists found HPV oropharyngeal cancers of the mouth, tongue, tonsils or throat in non-smoking, middle-age men will surpass that of cervical cancer by 2020.

Didn't know that? Hard to believe? That's because people remain reluctant to talk about HPV. Get over it!

We can blame the social stigma surrounding HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that requires skin-to-skin genital contact.

We can blame the reality that many people can't talk about oral sex without making jokes or without feeling "uncomfortable." Remember when actor Michael Douglas came forward about his HPV oral cancer last June? The public cracked jokes that were not only tasteless but also downright cruel.

When a celebrity takes ownership of a disease or condition, they can move mountains. AIDS is no longer a "four-letter word." Most STDs are treatable and should not be shunned. We need to talk about HPV and the HPV throat cancer epidemic.

It's been almost five years since actress Farrah Fawcett lost her fight against anal cancer in June 2009. According to the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, she was more than likely one of the 5-10 percent of cases that are not caused by HPV. At the time of Ms. Fawcett's death, news reports speculated that Fawcett's fight might help squash the stigma surrounding HPV. Sadly, it has not. But that doesn't mean we can't succeed eventually -- and hopefully sooner rather than later because we're running out of time.

According to the ASCO study, we have about six years until HPV oropharyngeal cancer becomes too widespread to ignore. But if we pay attention now, and raise research dollars to find better treatments, we can reduce the growth of this disease before it's too late.

In 2012, I launched HPVANDME.ORG, a non-profit news and information site dedicated to building awareness about HPV infection and HPV head and neck cancers after my husband, an otherwise healthy and athletic man, was diagnosed and treated: seven weeks of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy. He lost 45 pounds and lives with dry mouth due to damaged salivary glands and altered taste. The good news: There is a 90 percent survival rate for HPV-related throat cancer patients if the cancer is caught early.

Because the prognosis is so good and most people get HPV-related head and neck cancers in their 40s to 60s, they must live many more decades with these side effects. Right now, the Mayo Clinic is conducting a clinical trial to discover more gentle treatment protocols that will minimize the aftermath of radiation.

Oncologists, such as Dr. Daniel Ma who is conducting the Mayo trial, say HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer cases are relatively new and they have seen more and more cases in the past decade. Treatment protocols tend to err on the side of caution. In order to make sure the radiation is effective, oncologists prescribe the same amount of radiation for HPV-related throat cancers as they would for smoking-related cancers even though the latter is considered more aggressive. The result: HPV-positive cancer patients must endure a variety of side effects that may be avoidable or at least, reduced.

With more education, more people can learn about early symptoms and seek medical treatment early, avoiding harsher treatments and ensuring a better prognosis. HPVANDME.ORG is reaching tens of thousands of people but I still meet intelligent people who don't know about HPV. They think it's the same as herpes. They don't think they can get it. They don't realize that the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for boys as well as girls. And they think HPV only affects women in the form of cervical cancer and don't realize certain strains can become cancerous in the head and neck area in both men and women.

Whether McConaughey takes an Oscar home on Sunday night, he deserves recognition for fighting to bring Dallas Buyers Club to the big screen when doubters said no one wanted to see a film about AIDS. He bravely lost nearly 40 pounds for the role and in turn, we gained a big reminder that AIDS or any socially stigmatized disease deserves attention. It might take a big movie star to go public with his or her HPV throat cancer diagnosis for the world to take notice and take the HPV throat cancer epidemic seriously. In the meantime, learn about HPV, the HPV vaccine, and the early symptoms of HPV head and neck cancer.

Ron Woodroof is possibly the best part McConaughey will ever play.
Let's all play our part by learning and talking about HPV-related cancer now so we can reduce the number of patients who will have to battle it in the future.

Correction: A previous version of this post said Farrah Fawcett's cancer was HPV-related. According to the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, she never publicly or privately said she had HPV and, per to her oncologist, was never diagnosed with HPV.

If you want to help me build awareness, please write to me: hpvandmeorg@gmail.com

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