EOIN ROCHE IS a garda and a hurling coach at DCU, who was diagnosed with HPV cancer in March 2019. At the time, he didn’t know males could get HPV-related cancers.
Eoin had no symptoms at all when he was diagnosed with neck and tonsil cancer at 41: “I wasn’t sick, I was tired, because I had a three-year-old in the house.”
“My eldest lad was getting a haircut, and his glands had come up on around his neck. We took him to our local GP, and it turned out he had a bad flu and he was fighting the infection. We were told if it stays up, in two weeks they’d look at him again, but his glands were fine,” Eoin told TheJournal.ie.
“Then my glands came up on my neck and were quite hard. So I went to my doctor who looked at them and asked me if I was available to get blood tests the next day. After that I was asked was I available to get ultrasounds done and that came back inconclusive. I had a biopsy done, and that was inconclusive because the needle couldn’t penetrate the gland.”
After another test, he was diagnosed with HPV-caused cancer.
Eoin had heard of HPV cancer before, but this was in relation to cervical cancer. He’d never heard of HPV cancer in the neck, or males getting HPV cancer.
“I wasn’t aware of any of that,” he said, adding that part of the reason he’s publicising it now is because he doesn’t think men are aware they can get HPV cancer.
From what I’ve seen, the boys’ uptake of the vaccine is high, but when you ask why are they getting the vaccine, they don’t know. I’m a walking reason why they should get it.
HPV stands for Human papillomavirus. It’s a family of viruses that can infect and live in the skin and mucosal membranes of humans.
Sometimes HPV infections don’t show symptoms, and can be passed onto someone who will exhibit symptoms. In most cases (90%), the infection will be cleared out by the body naturally.
In some cases, it can develop in a way that leads to cancer, including cancer of the cervix, anus, oropharynx, penis, vagina, and vulva.
HPV is transmitted primarily by direct skin-to-skin genital contact during sexual intercourse. Condoms aren’t completely protective from this, because you can get warts from other areas that condoms don’t cover.
The virus is fairly resilient: it needs a host to replicate, but HPV can survive outside the body for a number of days on a surface or an item belonging to someone else.
Source: HSE Ireland/YouTube
The HPV vaccine
The HPV vaccine has been in place for girls as part of the school programme since 2010. There was a mixed reason as to why it was given to girls only: one reason being that it was thought if girls were safeguarded from spreading HPV infections, that this would protect boys, too.
The vaccine was administered through the school system, as it’s easier to follow up with the second or third vaccine doses. If children are aged under 15, they’re given the first vaccine dose in September, and the second in February. If they’re aged over 15, they’re given a third dose of the vaccine.
In 2016, due to a relentless misinformation campaign on social media, the uptake rate of the HPV vaccine fell dramatically, from a high of 87% in 2014, down to 51% in September 2016.
This misinformation was a mixture of people looking to spread scaremongering stories about the vaccine, and those with good intentions sharing that information on.
As a result, the HSE then launched an information campaign to explain what HPV is, how it causes cancer, and what the vaccine does.
The vaccine for boys
Last September, the vaccine was rolled out to boys in first and second year for the first time. The second dose of the vaccine is due to be administered this week for boys under the age of 15.
Dr Lucy Jessop, Director of the HSE National Immunisation Office said that the roll-out for boys “is very big and exciting as we needed to promote and normalise” the HPV programme.
In the majority of cases of cervical cancer, the time of HPV infection to time of malignancy is 10-30 years. In 90% of cases where HPV is detected, the body will rid itself of the infection.
For women, a cervical smear test can detect abnormalities, and these are monitored for further tests, and if they are precancerous, are treated.
But for men, there is no national screening service to detect HPV. If they want to be tested for it, they must ask for it specifically – making the vaccine important.
Jessop said that the uptake for the HPv vaccine seems to be very good, and is at around 90% for both boys and girls in Co Clare, where the late HPV advocate Laura Brennan was from.
Jessop added that it’s looking like Ireland will reach the WHO target of 80% for uptake of the HPV vaccine, which will be the first time it’s been at this level since before 2016, when the misinformation campaign was at its peak.
Treatment for HPV
Eoin found treatment for HPV cancer difficult.
“Even with my own sister, who has thorax cancer, I was a bit flippant when someone says they’re going through cancer treatment – cancer treatment is very severe. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are very tough on the body. It affects you both physically and mentally.
“Everybody is different, but it took three to four months to get the radiotherapy out of my system. The chemotherapy is mentally and physically draining – it dulls your thinking, so you don’t have a clear mind. Concentration levels are out the window.”
During his treatment, he found that the support of ARC counselling services were brilliant, and that he got help from friends “I hadn’t spoken to years”.
Out of 35 radiotherapy sessions, I didn’t have to drive once.
Eoin decided to become an advocate for the HPV vaccine after seeing the support for HPV vaccine college jerseys online.
He knew the story of Laura Brennan, a fierce advocate for the HPV vaccine in the final years before her death from cervical cancer at the age of 24. When he saw Laura’s brother Kevin retweeting images of the jersey.
When asked why he got involved when he was going through treatment for cancer, which included both and chemotherapy, Eoin said:
“You’ve time on your hands, you can’t really do much, and thankfully with Twitter you don’t have to do too much concentrating. It’s just quick snippetts.
“I saw that Kevin Brennan was liking and sharing the jersey, so I got in touch with him and said I knew Laura’s story, I have HPV cancer myself, and asked is there anything I can do. He put me in touch with people: the lads that wore the HPV jersey, and people in the HSE.”
The jersey campaign was where college jerseys would include a HPV vaccine logo where the sponsor logo would usually go, to promote awareness of the HPV vaccine.
“You get your jersey from O’Neills and then instead of having normal sponsor, you put the HPV vaccine on. DCU carried it, the University of Limerick carried it this year, a load of clubs and colleges carried it,” Eoin said.
He said that he was diagnosed at 39, having stopped drinking and smoking years previously after his two sons were born.
“I had my second shot of the vaccine this morning myself. I talked to one of my consultants about whether I should get it and he said ‘yeah’. I’ve had no side effects.
“I’d never tell somebody what to do specifically, but I’d encourage others to do it.”
His children are only young, but he said he’ll get them vaccinated when they’re older. “They have all their other vaccines,” he said.
If you’re looking for more information about the HPV vaccine, you can find it on the HSE website here.