Former MLA who survived cancer calls for national HPV vaccination program

A study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed a significant rise in the proportion of oral cancers caused by the HPV in Canada.

Gordie Gosse says his throat cancer was caused by a common sexually transmitted infection

Gordie Gosse, pictured here at Province House, retired from politics to deal with throat cancer in 2015. (Feed from the legislature )

Gordie Gosse is a changed man.

The former MLA for Sydney-Whitney Pier says he's barely recognizable after battling oropharyngeal cancer caused by the human papillomavirus.

Now, Gosse is on a mission to prevent others from going through what he has. He wants all Grade 7 boys and girls across the country to get vaccinated against HPV, and he's calling for regular testing for the virus.

A study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection, now accounts for an estimated 75 per cent of all oral malignant tumours.

The incidence of HPV-related oral cancers has increased by about 50 per cent in 12 years, the study found.

Considering those statistics, "somebody has to come out and say something," Gosse said.

Diagnosis and treatment

Gosse said it was a bit of a fluke that his cancer was found.

Three years ago, he went to see his family doctor after his wife told him he had bad breath.

Gosse was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist. They took out his tonsils and found stage 4 throat cancer caused by HPV.

Despite the late-stage diagnosis, Gosse's prognosis was good. But he needed aggressive treatment. He underwent extensive surgery that took nearly 13 hours to reconstruct his face.

After undergoing treatment for throat cancer, Gordie Gosse's appearance changed drastically. (David MacVicar/Canadian Cancer Society)

Gosse jokes that he looks so different that he now has a level of anonymity he may have enjoyed during his days in public office. But the changes also mean even some longtime friends don't recognize him.

Gosse said he was recently at a wake and was shaking hands and offering condolences to the family.

"I got to the oldest boy who I grew up with and played ball with and I shook his hand and said, 'Sorry for your loss.' And he said, 'I'm sorry, I don't recognize you.'  And I kind of said to him, 'Well, you should. I was best man at your wedding.'

"That's how much my appearance has changed."

Passionate advocate

Getting better was Gosse's first priority post-diagnosis.

Gosse said it's been a tough battle with many complications during treatment that eventually forced the politician to retire in 2015.

But Gosse has passionately advocated for better awareness of what he calls a preventable disease.

An HPV vaccine has been available to girls in Nova Scotia since 2007, and, thanks to Gosse's efforts, is now available to boys, too. (CBC)

Gosse paved the way for free HPV vaccines for boys in Nova Scotia, only the third province at the time to cover the vaccination. The vaccine has been available to girls in the province since 2007.

"I was fortunate enough to convince the government and my colleagues on all sides of the legislature that all boys would now be vaccinated in Nova Scotia," said Gosse.

Two years later, and Gosse said six provinces are now offering the HPV vaccine to boys and girls, but said there's still a long way to go.

Statistics from a Canadian Cancer Society report last fall showed 1,335 Canadians were diagnosed in 2012 with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer and 372 died from the disease.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection worldwide. Most people never develop symptoms and the infection resolves on its own within about two years. But in some people, the infection can persist, leading to cervical cancer in women, penile cancer in men and oropharyngeal cancer in both sexes.

'This is preventable'

Gosse said a stigma associated with a sexually transmitted infection doesn't make him reluctant to talk about his type of cancer.

"I'm not concerned about the stigma, about whether it was oral sex that caused the HPV or not," he said. "What I'm trying to do is bring awareness.

"When you have an injection out there now that can prevent what's happened to me, why would I not want to speak about it? So some young people today will not be in the same boat that I'm in right now.

"This is preventable. Let get out there and do something."

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet, The Canadian Press