Unfortunately, many women don’t know that this cancer can usually be prevented with a vaccination and appropriate screenings. Since January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, it’s a great time to learn a little more about cervical cancer and how you can protect against it. A little information just might save you, your daughter, your sister, or your friends from a scary diagnosis.
Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). Fortunately, highly effective and safe vaccines have been available for more than 10 years, and studies have shown the vaccine prevents the HPV types that cause 90% of all cervical cancer cases. (It should be noted that there are types of HPV that the vaccine doesn’t prevent that can still cause the disease.) The recommended age for vaccination is 11 or 12 years old – prior to becoming sexually active. However, the vaccine is still beneficial for those who are already sexually active as it’s unlikely they’ve been exposed to all types of HPV covered. Vaccination is recommended through the age of 26. The vaccine is also recommended for boys, since protecting them against HPV also reduces the chances of them transmitting it to girls.
HPV infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the U.S and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 90% of sexually active men and 80% of sexually active women will have at least one type of HPV infection at some point in their lives. High-risk HPVs make up around half of those infections, and these are the ones that cause cancer. High-risk infections occur without any symptoms, can go away in one to two years, and don’t cause cancer — however, the infections are still highly contagious. If the infection is persistent and left untreated, it can progress to cancer. Low-risk HPVs don’t cause cancer, but do cause skin warts on or around the genitals or anus.
In addition to the vaccine, regular cervical cancer screening is important as it detects abnormal cell changes in the cervix that occur years before cervical cancer develops. Traditionally, this screening has been the Pap test in which cervical cells are collected and evaluated for changes or abnormalities. If abnormalities are found, additional tests or procedures may be performed. Also, in women over 30, an HPV test can be given in addition to the Pap test or if a Pap test is unclear. Women 21 to 65 years old are recommended to get a Pap test every one to three years, and women 30 to 65 years can lengthen that interval to five years with an HPV test.
With vaccination and early detection, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. In addition, safe sex and consistent use of condoms reduces the risk for HPV transmission. According to the CDC, more than 50% of all new cervical cancers are in women who have never been screened or have not been screened in the previous five years — so regular screening is important.
Learn more about cervical health here. Then talk to your doctor about the steps you should take to prevent and screen for cervical cancer.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.