Spreading the word

Before being diagnosed with HPV-related cervical cancer in 2012, Carol Murray of Mount Pleasant was enjoying retirement with her husband, Larry. They played plenty of golf, including a round on Pinehurst Resort’s famed No. 4 course in 2009.

Carol Murray, married for 46 years and a grandmother of two, is not a person many would associate with human papilloma virus, or HPV.

Murray, was enjoying her retirement in Mount Pleasant, playing golf, doing yoga and having an active social life in late 2012 when she “started having issues” and a scan revealed she had a tumor in her cervix.

Three months prior to her diagnosis for metastatic cervical cancer, she had a routine pap test that was normal.

When her physician, gynecologic oncologist Dr. Jennifer Young Pierce, told Murray that the cancer was caused by HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, Murray admits to wondering, “How did I get this?”

Murray, 68, soon learned that the virus is highly contagious and that getting it “does not mean you’re a loose woman or a hot guy.”

Still, Murray fought the cancer with chemotherapy and radiation, which took its toll on her health, her family and her lifestyle. She now is involved in a clinical trial that requires monthly trips to University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“It’s been a long road with lots of ups and downs,” says Murray.

Along the way she’s also become an advocate for parents getting their children, both boys and girls, vaccinated for HPV.

“I want my grandchildren to have the vaccine because I don’t ever want them to have to face these treatments,” says Murray.

Dr. Pierce, the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center and other health professionals have worked hard in recent years to spread awareness of the HPV vaccine and the effort is paying off.

Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported most states are making only minimal gains in vaccinating teenagers against HPV, but that South Carolina posted the biggest gains in coverage with an 18.5 percent increase between 2012 and 2013.

Still, experts at the Hollings Cancer Center say there is more work to be done and estimate that only half of teenage girls ages 13 to 17 and only 20 percent of teenage boys in the same age range have received all three doses of the HPV vaccine in South Carolina.

And the CDC estimates there are 14 million new HPV infections every year, usually acquired by people in their teens and 20s. That’s why it’s important to vaccinate before people become sexually active, according to Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center of Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

To that end and as part of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, Hollings and the University Humanities Committee are holding a free screening of “Someone You Love: The HPV Epidemic” at 6 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Basic Sciences Building, 173 Ashley Ave.

Narrated by Vanessa Williams, the documentary takes a look into the lives of five women affected by HPV and the cancers they battled.

Summerville native Tamika Felder, one of the five women being featured in the film, will be at the screening to answer questions following it.

In 2001 at age 25, Felder was well on her way to a promising career in TV when she was dealt a major blow: She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. And it was so far along that treatment required a radical hysterectomy and radiation.

One of her major goals in life, to have children, was dashed forever.

After surviving and getting her life back on track, Felder has funneled her experience into something positive, and in 2005 created an award-winning nonprofit, Tamika and Friends Inc., to educate women, particularly African-American women, about cervical cancer and its connection to the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, HPV.

Felder will be joined by other survivors as well, including a patient who spoke last year before the South Carolina House Medical Affairs Committee in an effort to have a bill passed that would raise awareness of the availability of the vaccine.

Dr. Pierce was in Columbia earlier this month working on HPV vaccine legislation and funding as part of her efforts to promote prevention.

“People are getting the message that this is a cancer vaccine and not about a child having intercourse,” she says, noting that HPV is the cause of 90 percent of cervical cancers as well as most anal, vaginal, vulvar and head and neck cancers.

“We still have a lot of work to do in getting the message out, especially to boys,” says Pierce.

Meanwhile, the vaccines are getting better. In December, the Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil 9 for the prevention of cancers caused by nine types of HPV, five more types than previously approved.

Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, called HPV vaccinations “a critical public health measure for lowering the risk of most cervical, genital and anal cancers caused by HPV” and that the approval of Gardasil 9 will provide broader protection.

Jennifer Cox-Mason admits to having reservations about getting her teenage son vaccinated when she and her husband discussed it.

“The reason I had a reservation was because of ignorance,” the Daniel Island resident says, noting that the thought entered her mind that the vaccination represented “a green light for him to be sexually active.”

“Abstinence is what most parents say they want for their 15- and 16-year-olds,” she adds.

But she dismissed that thought and they had their son vaccinated. She soon realized that was the right thing to do.

In the fall of 2013, months after suffering symptoms, Cox-Mason was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer that may be associated with HPV. She, too, was treated with chemotherapy and radiation and is currently in remission.

Now the green light, in her eyes, is for getting youth vaccinated.

A year ago, The Post and Courier highlighted local commercial real estate broker Kit Regnery’s battle with HPV-related throat cancer.

The long-time Sullivan’s Island resident was shocked by the diagnosis, especially since he ate a healthy diet, exercised vigorously and has been happily married for a quarter century.

“I had heard about HPV and cervical cancer in women,” says Regnery, “but not throat cancer.”

Regnery used his diagnosis as a call to raise awareness of a “silent epidemic” and as a need for teen males to get vaccinated.

Last week, the 70-year-old says he is doing fine and continues to regain what he lost through radiation, the last treatment of which was March 19.

“ I was able to windsurf in 20-plus knots of wind on July 15 on my 70th birthday. My weight is back within a few pounds,” says Regnery. “My taste buds are back to about 80 percent, but my appetite is still low.”

Despite having energy levels of “about 70 percent,” Regnery has resumed fast walking for an hour about 5 days a week along with some weight training, including chinups and pushups about three days per week.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.