When it comes to cervical cancer, nearly all cases are caused by exposure to the human papillomavirus, or HPV. Thankfully, cervical cancer is almost always preventable. Understanding more about HPV and cervical health in general can greatly help in the prevention of this kind of cancer. Here’s some important information every woman should know.
HPV: The Root Cause of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer is a disease that forms in the tissues of a woman’s cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus (womb) that connects to the vagina (birth canal). According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease (STD), is found in about 99% of cervical cancers.
Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are a group of more than 200 related viruses. Over 40 HPV types can be easily passed between partners through sexual contact. Infection with HPV is very common, with about 1 in 4 people currently infected in the United States according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sexually-transmitted HPV types fall into two categories: low-risk HPVs and high-risk HPVs. Most of them are considered low-risk and do not cause cancer. High-risk HPVs, on the other hand, may cause abnormal cervical cells or cancer. While approximately a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified, two of these, HPV types 16 and 18, are responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Thankfully, the majority of women infected with HPV will not develop cancer and most pre-cancerous cells will resolve on their own, often times, within one to two years. For some other women, however, pre-cancerous cells eventually turn into cancer. As with many other cancers, signs and symptoms of cervical cancer don’t arise until it has reached a more advanced stage.
When symptoms do occur, they typically include unusual vaginal discharge, abnormal vaginal bleeding, and pain during intercourse. If you experience any of these symptoms, talking with your gynecologist can help determine whether or not you should be tested for HPV and/or cancerous cells on the cervix.
Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting HPV and/or cervical cancer.
Get Screened Regularly
Cervical cancer can be found early and even prevented with routine screening tests. Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. The cervical cancer death rate in the United States continues to decline by approximately 2% each year. This is primarily due to women undergoing routine cervical cancer screening (Pap tests), which helps detect cervical abnormalities and allow for early treatment.
There are certain guidelines regarding cervical cancer screenings set in place by The American Cancer Society, which include:
- Pap test every 3 years for women 21-29 years of age. HPV testing is not recommended unless there are abnormal Pap results.
- Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) every 5 years for women 30-65 years of age. It also is acceptable to have a Pap test alone every 3 years.
- Women age 65 or older who have had regular screening within the last 10 years and no serious pre-cancers within the last 20 years no longer need to be screened.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomy do not need screenings unless the surgery was performed as a treatment for cervical pre-cancer or cancer.
Use a Condom During Sex
The CDC states that the effect of condoms in preventing HPV infection is unknown. However, the consistent and correct use of male latex condoms have been associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer.
Limit Your Number of Sexual Partners
For most adults, abstinence from sexual contact is not a realistic option. Therefore, if you do choose to have sex, consider limiting the number of partners you have to reduce potential exposure to HPV. Additionally, it is a good idea to choose a partner who has had limited partners as well. The fewer partners either of you has had, the lower the risk will be of contracting (or spreading) HPV. Periodically, you may want to be tested for HPV or other STDs as a preventative measure.
Consider an HPV Vaccine
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved three vaccines to prevent HPV infection: Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix. These vaccines have been designed to provide protection against new HPV infections. If you have had one of these HPV vaccines, it is still recommended that you follow the Pap test screening guidelines. Talk to your gynecologist or your primary care physician about these vaccines and whether they’re right for you.
Protect Yourself from Cervical Cancer
Remember, you can take action to protect yourself from HPV and cervical cancer. The best thing you can do is stay informed and work toward making good lifestyle decisions that can help reduce your risk. When detected early, treatment for cervical cancer can be successful!