Get the crucial information you need about HPV, screenings, and more
Cervical cancer begins in the cervix—the lower, narrow part of the uterus that leads to the vagina. Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer-related death for American women, but the good news is that the associated death rate has gone down more than 50 percent over the last 40 years thanks to increased use of the Pap test.
Because cervical cancer is very curable when found and treated early, it’s important to be educated about it. Here are five things you need to know to reduce your risk.
Early cervical cancer and human papillomavirus (HPV) can be present with no symptoms. When cervical cancer is more advanced, women may experience bleeding, vaginal discharge, postcoital bleeding, or pelvic pain. But the only way to know for sure is to see your doctor—and make sure you get regular preventive checkups including Pap tests.
More than 90 percent of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV, a sexually transmitted virus. HPV is very common, and often causes no symptoms, though some strains may result in genital warts (although these are not the ones that cause cancer). High-grade HPV infections can take years (or decades) to become cancerous. Someone infected with HPV is not only at risk for cervical cancer but also vaginal, vulvar, anal, and oral cancers. Although it may be uncomfortable, it’s always important to talk with a potential sexual partner about their sexual history.
There are two tests used to screen for cervical cancer:
- A standard Pap test. This can detect changes in cervical cells that may become cancerous if not treated. From age 21 to 29, women should get a Pap test every three years. If the Pap test shows these abnormal cells, more tests may be required.
- An HPV test. An HPV test can be combined with a Pap test every five years (preferred) for women ages 30 to 65. This is called co-testing, and it isn’t recommended for women under age 30.
Even though you may only need a Pap test every three years, AdvantageCare Physicians OB/GYN, Dr. Melinda Huang points out that women should still see their gynecologist annually for their well-woman visit, which includes an evaluation of weight and blood pressure, a depression screening, an STD screening, counseling, and more.
There are several ways to help prevent cervical cancer:
- Get an HPV vaccine series if you are 26 or younger. While the vaccine is recommended for girls who are 11 or 12, anyone between the ages of 9 and 26 can get it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for the HPV vaccine changed in October 2016: It is now recommended that a person receive two HPV vaccinations rather than three, if the child starts the series prior to her 15th birthday. The second dose is then given six to 12 months after the first. Dr. Huang says that while the vaccine only protects against nine strains of HPV—there are more than 200—“the most virulent ones are prevented by the HPV vaccine.”
- Get regular Pap tests. Regular Pap tests help your doctor find and treat abnormal cells that may turn cancerous. In fact, this screening can find changes in the cervix before cancer actually develops. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, you will still need regular Pap tests.
- Be monogamous. Because cervical cancer is so strongly linked to HPV, which is sexually transmitted, being monogamous can help lower your risk.
- Use condoms. While condoms won’t completely eliminate your risk of contracting HPV, research shows that using them can help lower your risk of cervical cancer. Genital warts can still be contracted by skin-to-skin contact in areas that are not protected by the barrier, but your risk will be greatly reduced.
- Stop smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, women who smoke are almost twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as women who don’t.
For early-stage cervical cancer, either surgery or radiation, in combination with chemotherapy, is the usual treatment. Surgery is utilized on smaller tumors that can be removed in their entirety. Radiation with chemotherapy is the standard treatment for later-stage cervical cancer.
The most important step you can take to prevent cervical cancer is to take charge of your own health. Schedule your necessary screening tests, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and, if you smoke, stop as quickly as possible.
If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical cancer, know that treatment is available, and new ways to prevent and treat cervical cancer are constantly being researched. Dr. Huang says that a newly diagnosed cervical cancer patient should “never be afraid to ask questions or have your medical team explain things again. There may be difficult periods when coping with the diagnosis. Let your team know if you need additional help.”