In 2013, Alison Salinas was in the prime of her life. The 32-year-old public relations professional had just started her own company and was looking forward to what the future held. When she went in for a doctor’s appointment on Halloween that year — following some tests to investigate why she had been spotting between her periods — everything changed.

“It is a cancer that kills — it still kills about 380 women a year in Canada — and generally, these are young women with families, children, at the beginning of their adult life.”

“You never can prepare yourself to actually hear the words: You have cancer,” wrote Salinas on her blog. That day, she became a cervical cancer patient, but she also became an advocate to make sure that other women did not have to go through what she was about to endure. 

Last year, an estimated 1,500 women like Salinas were diagnosed with cervical cancer, the fourth most common reproductive cancer in the country, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

“It is a cancer that kills — it still kills about 380 women a year in Canada — and generally, these are young women with families, children, at the beginning of their adult life,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, President of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, who worked with Salinas to spread her message. “And this is preventable.”

Preventing the unthinkable

Unlike other cancers, virtually all cervical cancer is caused by one source: the human papillomavirus. Often referred to as HPV, this virus is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and both men and women can contract it. An estimated 75 percent of sexually active Canadians will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime.

“People think it always happens to somebody else.”

“It’s like the flu,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada. “Everyone gets it.”

Nearly 70 percent of patients will be able to fight off an HPV infection on their own, but for some women it can lead to cervical cancer, or other cancers, including cancer of the mouth, throat, anus, vulva and vagina, and penile cancer in men.

“People think it always happens to somebody else,” says Dr. Brown. After she was diagnosed, Salinas became a spokesperson for the disease, starting a personal blog and the #TEALPOWER movement, which aims to raise awareness for cervical cancer prevention, and funds to fight the disease. Dr. Brown says her message was simple: “This is a vaccine-preventable disease; why aren’t we all running out to get vaccinated? Because look what can happen; it happened to me.”

The newest form of the HPV vaccine protects patients against the 9 strains of the virus responsible for 90 percent of cervical cancer cases. It is typically recommended to get the HPV vaccine at a young age, before becoming sexually active, but the vaccine is approved for use in women until age 45, and men until age 26 — which means that even if you are sexually active, it may not be too late.

“It continues to be effective in adults,” says Dr. Blake. “You can be vaccinated, and it is still effective even if you had an abnormal Pap test.”

With this vaccine, given in three doses over a few months, physicians hope to prevent women like Salinas from having to experience the harsh cancer treatments that can put their fertility, health, and lives at risk.

“The opportunity to eradicate cervical cancer is something we can begin to think about now,” says Dr. Blake. “It will take time, but this isn’t screening or detecting cancer, this is prevention — and that’s what’s really exciting.”

A legacy of action

After fighting cervical cancer with a strong message and smile, Salinas lost her battle last year. She was 35.

“She was very — for lack of a better word — alive.”

“This is not a disease that’s hitting an elderly person at the end of her life,” says Dr. Brown. “She was in her prime.”

Looking at pictures of the vivacious young professional modelling her wig and head wraps or sharing her story at the 2015 Ride to Conquer Cancer, Dr. Brown started to get emotional. “She was very — for lack of a better word — alive,” says Dr. Brown.

Now when Dr. Brown speaks about the HPV vaccine and the prevention of cervical cancer, she shares Salinas’ story and her message to encourage women to protect themselves against this deadly disease. “What she wanted to do was make a difference for other women,” says Dr. Brown. “I’m humbled talking about her.”

With the HPV vaccine, Dr. Blake sees an opportunity to stop cervical cancer before it starts. “I don’t know that we have any other cancer that is so preventable as this one.”

To read Alison's blog and for more on how you can help, click here