Peter Kent beats throat cancer, urges HPV vaccination for boys

Conservative MP Peter Kent now shows no remaining sign of cancer, and says vaccinating boys against HPV could help save others from a similar experience.

Thornhill MP, a former cabinet minister, wants boys to be immunized in addition to girls

Conservative MP Peter Kent now shows no remaining sign of cancer, and says vaccinating boys against HPV could help save others from a similar experience. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Conservative MP Peter Kent noticed something different about his throat one day last November when he was shaving. 

The former environment minister was in the midst of a four-week stretch before the House of Commons rose for the holiday break, so he waited a few weeks before going to see his doctor back home in his Thornhill, Ont., riding.

What was originally thought to be a cyst turned out to be Stage IV tongue and throat cancer. It was caused by the human papillomavirus​ (HPV), which Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital says 75 per cent of Canadians will get at some point.

Nine months later, Kent has been through surgery, seven weeks of radiation and chemo, and as of right now shows no remaining sign of cancer (there will be several years of follow-up tests before his doctors can be certain he's cancer-free). 

"It's a very sobering message to receive, but I had sort of I guess prepared myself given the progression from lump to final diagnosis and recognition of all-out treatment," Kent said.

"But you do what you do and thousands of Canadians do it every day. I was among hundreds every day during my treatment at the Sunnybrook Odette Cancer Centre. Everybody faces up to the treatment that's required and some of us are very fortunate with the outcome and others are not."

HPV puts men at risk too

HPV is mostly thought of as the trigger for cervical cancer, but men are also at risk for penile and anal cancers, as well as head and neck cancers, caused by HPV.

Kent says his doctors have convinced him it's important to vaccinate boys against HPV. Some provinces already vaccinate girls for free, funded in part by the federal government, but Kent would like to see funding for boys to be vaccinated too.

Governments tend to be cautious about increasing medical spending without "powerful justification," he said.

"But I think in this case, if the doctors are right in forecasting a significant spike in male HPV cancers in the next 10 or 20 years, the preventive action is a fraction of what the public health cost would be to treat those cancers when they become full-blown."

Kent says he's already spoken to some colleagues and that he plans to talk to Health Minister Rona Ambrose.

"I'll raise my voice and do what I can to increase awareness," he said.

"All the responses that I've had so far in discussion is that people are ... unaware of the risk and the recommendations by an increasing number of medical professionals." 

Alcohol and smoking are triggers

Last year, actor Michael Douglas raised some eyebrows when he chalked up his HPV-caused throat cancer — which he later said was actually tongue cancer — to sexual activity. His spokesman later denied he'd made that link.

Kent said tongue and throat cancers can be triggered by alcohol use and smoking, explaining that he favoured vodka martinis, though he isn't drinking now after having been fed through a tube in his stomach for a few months.

"I wasn't taking anything orally except clear liquids. But I'm back on a regular diet and putting on weight," Kent said.

The 71-year-old former journalist said he was touched by the concern shown by colleagues, including those from the parliamentary prayer breakfast, a cross-party group that encouraged its members to pray for him.

Kent said he kept in touch by working on his iPad and Blackberry smartphone during treatment, and continuing to watch the news. He'll be back in Ottawa next week and plans to run again in next year's federal election.


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