Methodist Healthcare Ministries team members administer vaccines to protect patients from harmful diseases. Credit: Josue Campos

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March 4 is recognized around the world as International HPV Awareness Day. It’s a day to raise awareness for the dangers, signs, and symptoms of human papillomavirus (HPV) and, more importantly, to focus attention on steps we can take to prevent its spread. It’s also a day to celebrate with the survivors of HPV-related cancers and to support those who are fighting and advocating to prevent this disease, which impacts more than 700,000 people each year, according to the International Papillomavirus Society.

HPV is actually quite common – more than 80 percent of people get infected with it at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict who among the 80 percent will be lucky enough to avoid the six types of cancer, including throat and cervical cancer, that HPV is known to cause.

In 2006, I found myself among that unfortunate group of people who got cancer from HPV. In my case, it was squamous cell carcinoma in my throat.

When I got cancer from HPV, there was no vaccine that I could have taken to prevent it. There was not much I could have done to save myself from the ordeal beforehand. Now, thankfully, there are HPV vaccinations that have been developed, and the evidence overwhelmingly shows that it can prevent six types of cancer.

My battle with cancer is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to go through. I was blessed to have the love and support of my family and a wonderful medical team that cared for me. And, like so many others living with cancer, I benefited from cutting-edge research spearheaded by organizations like the American Cancer Society that made my treatments possible and successful. I thank God each day for being able to say that I got through it, and over 14 years later, I still have a clean bill of health. I’m a survivor.

As a survivor, I wanted to take full advantage of the second chance God had given me to give back and be there for people who were fighting their own battle with cancer. That’s why I support the American Cancer Society. I have raised funds, participated in their advocacy efforts and I have been able to collaborate with them in my role as president & CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc., where we partner together on a number of initiatives designed to raise awareness and increase HPV vaccination rates for children. I have even served as chair of the American Cancer Society’s South Texas Area board of directors and chair to the South Region Advisory Cabinet.

I have been very blessed and am reminded each day that there is more to do so others can say they too are survivors – especially during these unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic had, and continues to have, a devastating effect on so many, and the American Cancer Society was not immune from the impact. But cancer did not stop and neither did they! I am incredibly grateful for and proud of their determination to continue supporting patients during the pandemic while pressing forward with research that will give hope to others who hear those awful words: “You have cancer.”

I believe that through my personal experience, God has given me more defined insight into and compassion for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families.

So that is why I’d like to take a moment on International HPV Awareness Day to share a little bit of my story and ask you to do three things:

First, if you have cancer, keep fighting, and if you know someone currently fighting cancer, continue to be there for them any way you can. Through prayer, offers of assistance, or even just being there for them, they will appreciate it more than they can ever fully express.

Second, if you have children ages 11-12, make sure they get the two doses of the HPV vaccine. It will protect them against up to six different cancers caused by HPV. And, if you’re a young adult up to age 26, make sure you receive a catch-up booster if you were not adequately vaccinated when you were younger.

Last, consider giving of your time, talent, or treasure to any one of the cancer-related nonprofit organizations that exist to provide aid and support to cancer patients and their families or that are dedicated to advancing research into the different types of cancer that affect so many of our friends and loved ones.

Cancer is a disease that does not discriminate – it can happen to anyone regardless of where you live or what you do. But we can take steps to protect ourselves and the people we love: Get the vaccine, support the research and organizations devoted to finding cures and together, we can stop cancer.

Jaime Wesolowski is the President & CEO of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc., a faith-based, not-for-profit organization working to create access to care for low-income, uninsured...