Whether the vaccine will actually work to quell cancer rates down the road, however, remains to be seen. Given current vaccination rates, Gillison says, she is not optimistic it will make much difference "even if the vaccine works." Many researchers will have their eye on other countries, such as Australia, which made the vaccine free to girls and women ages 12 to 26, and started a nationwide vaccination program in 2007. So if the next few decades bring a dip in HPV-positive cancer rates there, scientists will have good evidence that the vaccine is at least partially protective for those cancers.
In the meantime, diagnostic vigilance for these increasingly common cancers will be important in order to offer patients the best treatment options. Johns Hopkins's Marur suggests that many physicians could do for more education on the topic. "These patients present to their internists, their primary care physicians," she says. "And nobody thinks about cancer because they're so young."