Michelle Shkolnick is proud that she has kicked cancer twice in two very different but effective ways.
Almost two decades ago, she fought her way through breast cancer and emerged stronger than she was before.
In 2013, she was diagnosed with a second cancer – this one caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV.) She unknowingly carried the virus for more than 30 years before her symptoms showed up. It took her a while to recognize that she was once again battling cancer.
“My father had recently passed away, and in addition to working full time, I bought a house,” she says. “I was very tired but figured it was just stress and normal life.”
She developed an earache that radiated to her jawline. When antibiotics and steroids didn’t help and a mass developed at the back of her throat, Shkolnick realized something was very wrong.
“When you have been through the cancer rodeo once, you remain very vigilant and take nothing for granted,” she says.
While the HPV vaccine is available and recommended for adolescents and young adults today, Shkolnick, 54, grew up at a time when little was known about HPV and the vaccine wasn’t offered.
“Treatment for HPV was much different from the radiation and chemotherapy I went through for breast cancer. This was much more aggressive over a much shorter amount of time,” she says. Her treatment took place at Nebraska Medicine.
“I first went through seven weeks of radiation concurrent with three rounds of chemo. I never knew how bad it could get.
“I’d make it through a bad day and tell myself, ‘If this is as bad as it gets, I can do this.’ And then the next day would be a little bit worse. But I’m a fighter. If that’s what it was going to take to beat it and survive, I was ready to do it.”
Next month, Shkolnick will be six years cancer-free. But she takes nothing for granted. She gets checked regularly and doesn’t take chances.
She also has overcome her initial concern about telling such a deeply personal story due to HPV being a sexually-transmitted infection.
She says if sharing her experience convinces parents to vaccinate their children or helps someone with symptoms seek medical attention, she knows she has done a good thing.
“If a vaccine had been available when I was young, I would have wanted my parents to get me vaccinated. But my generation didn’t have that option,” says Shkolnick, who has shared her story often on behalf of the American Cancer Society. “So now when I speak about HPV-related cancer, I make a point to urge the parents in the room to get their children vaccinated.
“Parents might object because they see the vaccine as giving their kids permission to be promiscuous or careless, but that’s not the case. I believe just like you get your child vaccinated against the measles, you should want to keep your child from acquiring HPV and potentially cancer. I’m definitely a cautionary tale that anyone can get HPV. “
YOU SHOULD KNOW
• There are more than 150 types of HPV, and HPV infection is very common.
• About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV every year.
• HPV is so common that almost every person who is sexually active will get HPV at some time in their life if they don’t get the HPV vaccine.
• The HPV vaccine can protect people from getting the types of HPV infections that cause six different types of cancers – that’s 90% of all HPV-related cancers.
• Girls and boys should ideally begin getting vaccinated at age 11 or 12.
• HPV causes about 31,500 new cases of cancer in men and women each year.
• Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV.
• There is no test to find out a person’s “HPV status.”
Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control