Cervical Cancer Prevention
According to the American Cancer Society 13,170 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2019 and about 4,250 women will die from this disease (1). January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Here are some important facts about this type of cancer and how you can reduce your risk.
What is cervical cancer?
Cancer is a disease where cells grow abnormally and can invade or spread to other parts of the body, interfering with normal functions. Each type of cancer is named for the part of the body where it originates. The cervix connects the vagina (birth canal) to the upper part of the uterus (womb). Cancer that starts in the cervix is called cervical cancer (2). Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer.
What is the significance of HPV in development of cervical cancer?
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. While HPV is usually harmless and goes away by itself, some types can lead to cancer in men and women.
Two types of HPV (types 6 and 11) cause most cases of genital warts. Warts are not fun, but they’re considered low-risk HPV because they don’t lead to cancer or other serious health problems (3).
At least a dozen types of HPV can sometimes lead to cancer, though two in particular (types 16 and 18) lead to the majority of cancer cases. Cervical cancer is most commonly linked to HPV, but HPV can also cause cancer of the vulva and vagina in women, and in men can cause cancer of the penis, anus, mouth and throat (4).
HPV is so common that most people will get it at some time in their lives. HPV usually causes no symptoms so you can’t tell that you have it. For most, HPV will go away on its own; however, if it doesn’t, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical or other cancers.
Are there other risk factors for developing cervical cancer?
Having a weakened immune system can decrease ones’ ability to respond and clear the HPV virus, leading to development of cervical cancer.
Smoking – Although cervical cancer is caused primarily by HPV, cigarette smoking is considered a cofactor, which means that certain types of HPV and cancer-causing chemicals related to smoking may work together to increase your likelihood of developing cervical cancer. (5)
Is there a shot I can get to prevent HPV?
There is an HPV vaccine that protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. The ideal time to get the HPV vaccine is before you’re sexually active. It is recommended for preteens (both boys and girls) aged 9 – 12 years. If you were not vaccinated in your preteens, there is still a great cancer prevention benefit in receiving the vaccine up through 26 years of age for women and through 21 years of age for men (6). It is important to note that women who are vaccinated against HPV still need to have regular tests to screen for cervical cancer. (7)
Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers — cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
Both tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
What are the guidelines for the screening tests?
Screening should begin at age 21, regardless of age of first sexual activity, and should continue based on the following guidelines (8):
If You Are 21 to 29 Years Old
You should start getting PAP tests at age 21. If your PAP test result is normal, your healthcare provider may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Over the last several decades, routine screening and development of an HPV vaccine have combined to significantly decrease the number of cancer cases and deaths in Western countries. When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and a good quality of life.
This blog was written for Healthy Young NV by Logan, a Youth Advisory Council Member.
2. www.cdc.gov/cancer/knowledge 800-CDC-INFO
5. Fonseca-Moutinho J. A. (2011). Smoking and cervical cancer. ISRN obstetrics and gynecology, 2011, 847684.