According to the CDC, cervical cancer was once “the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States.” Fortunately, 40 years of medical advances have significantly decreased the number of cases and given us much more effective treatments. It remains, however, a serious cancer. Prevention and early detection are key to reducing your risk.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, designated by the United States Congress to raise awareness for cervical cancer. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC), the disease still affects more than 13,000 women annually and can often be prevented with proper vaccination and screenings.
Cervical cancer occurs when healthy cells mutate in the cervix, the lower area of the uterus which connects to the vagina. Symptoms may include vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain.
Most forms of cervical cancer are caused by strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI). HPV can also cause cancers of the vulva and vagina, the penis in men, and the back of the throat and anus. While there are screenings available for cervical cancer, the other types of cancer that HPV contributes to are often not detected until the disease presents symptoms.
The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) reports that more than 90% of all cancers caused by HPV can be prevented with the HPV vaccination. More specifically, the CDC notes that up to 93% of cervical cancers can be prevented through both HPV vaccination and screenings.
The NFID recommends clinicians take the evidence-based approach of recommending the HPV vaccine for preteens aged 11 to 12. This is the optimal age for the strongest immune response, but men and women up to the age of 45 can still get the vaccine. Preteens up to age 15 require only two doses, but anyone 15 or older will need a full three-dose series.
The vaccine works by producing antibodies which will bind to the virus should they ever encounter it in the future. This effectively prevents HPV from infecting cells within the body, significantly reducing the risk of cervical cancer and other cancers caused by HPV.
HPV is the most common STI, affecting 79 million Americans in their late teens and early 20s. Oftentimes, the virus goes away on its own and doesn’t cause any adverse health issues. It may also never present any symptoms, though it can still spread from one person to another through sexual activity even when someone is asymptomatic. In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also lead to genital warts. While it’s typically not dangerous in itself, its potential to cause cancer over time (coupled with its prevalence) makes HPV a condition that calls for prevention.
The Papanicolaou (Pap) test is another important tool that aids in cervical cancer prevention. This screening can be completed right in your primary care physician’s office. It tests for abnormal cells which could develop into cervical cancer. Early detection of both pre-cancerous cells and cervical cancer lead to a greater chance of a cure. That’s why most doctors advise pap tests for women at a minimum of three-year intervals starting at the age of 21.
Your doctor can also give you an HPV test, which screens for the presence of HPV. Your doctor can discuss with you factors such as age and health history to determine whether the HPV test, pap test, or both are recommended for you. They may also review with you risk factors for cervical cancer, which can include smoking and having other STIs.
Although there are powerful strategies in place to almost completely prevent cervical cancer, many women aren’t leveraging them to their fullest potential. As of 2012, 10% of women reported that they hadn’t been screened for cervical cancer within the previous five years.
Additionally, the NFID found that only half of adolescent boys and girls had received the HPV vaccine as of 2017, leaving a large population vulnerable to HPV and the cancers it could cause in the future. The vaccine is simple to receive and can be administered during the same appointment when other vaccines are given.
During Cervical Health Awareness Month, organizations such as the NCCC spread the word about cervical cancer and the strategies available to prevent it. If you’re a parent of an adolescent child, now is a good time to talk to their doctor about the HPV vaccination. Or, if you’re a woman over the age of 21, you can schedule a pap test if you haven’t had one within the past three years. You can also discuss your individual risk and whether or not you should consider additional testing, such as the HPV test.
If you’re due for a pap test, would like to discuss the HPV vaccine, or want to know more about HPV and cervical cancer, turn to the doctors at United Physician Group Family Medicine. Offering targeted health care for patients of all ages, this team offers preventive care to help you and your family members stay healthy. Schedule your exam or appointment at a location near you today.