Our latest interview is with Stewart Lyman, PHD, creator of HPVCancerResources.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work.
Stewart Lyman, PhD, creator of the HPVCancerResources.org website, a resource for HPV cancer patients, their partners, healthcare providers, and parents who want to learn more about the HPV vaccine. I have a PhD in Oncology and have spent much of my adult life doing research to understand cancer and develop effective treatments for this disease. In 2016 I was diagnosed with a malignant HPV-positive tumor in one of my tonsils. The tumor was successfully removed by trans oral robotic surgery (TORS). I was very fortunate in that compared to most head and neck cancer patients because my cancer was caught early, and I did not require chemotherapy and radiation.
What was the impact of cancer on your life?
The diagnosis impacted me greatly, as it does for most cancer patients. I had no symptoms at the time of my diagnosis (found during a routine checkup), so getting the news was shocking. It kicked off a very frightening period in my life. I was diagnosed at the age of 61, which was the exact same age that my mother was diagnosed with cancer. In her case, sadly, she was dead and buried less than three months later, and I was worried the same thing would happen to me! The treatment and recovery were challenging, but with the great support of family and friends I made it through this difficult time.
What led you to develop resources relating to HPV?
I didn’t know much about HPV-caused cancers at the time that I was diagnosed, so I did a lot of research to understand both the disease and its effects on patients. I decided to create the HPVCancerResources.org website as a way of giving back. I wanted other HPV-cancer patients to have an easier time than I did finding the information that would help guide them through their treatment and recovery. I also wanted this to serve as a resource so that people could learn about the HPV vaccine, which can prevent the vast majority of HPV-caused cancers from ever developing.
Do you have any advice for separating fact from fiction regarding online information?
Go to a reputable source for the information. Facts I compiled on my website are sourced from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society, and similar groups. I provide actual citations to many of the research studies I found, along with links so that website visitors can access the information directly. I even put in an entire page refuting myths about the HPV vaccine, since there are so many of these circulating on the internet.
What are the main responses have you seen to the HPV vaccine?
These can be divided into three groups. Most parents clearly understand the value of the vaccine (who wouldn’t want to prevent their kids from getting cancer?) and follow their pediatrician's recommendation to immunize their kids. In a second, smaller group are parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their kids with this (and a number of other vaccines) because they’ve seen or heard scary anecdotes about the vaccine. Most of these parents can be convinced to immunize their kids when they’re presented with the facts showing the vaccine is both safe and effective. The smallest group are anti-vaccine parents. Sadly, there is nothing that you can say to them to change their minds; no amount of factual information will alter their stance. I focus my energies on the first two groups, as the third one is simply beyond reaching and teaching.
What do you see as the greatest obstacle to take up of the HPV vaccine? How can we overcome this?
The greatest obstacle for the vaccine are the myths and misinformation spread all over the internet by the anti-vaccine movement. We can overcome this by spending the time to educate parents about the diseases that the virus causes, and dispel whatever myths they’ve heard that have made them hesitant. Having a resource that you can send these parents to that will educate them is also valuable, which was one of my motivations for creating the website.
Do you have any final thoughts or anything you would like to add?
It’s a pretty simple message I want to get across to parents: cancer prevention beats cancer treatment! I can attest to the truth of this statement because of my background as a cancer researcher coupled with the fact that I am an HPV-cancer survivor.