Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that is almost always preventable. Unfortunately, however, thousands of women in the United States continue to be diagnosed each year. While cervical cancer is a serious condition, there are steps you can take to protect yourself — and it begins with understanding the primary cause of the disease as well as cervical health in general.
HPV: The Most Common Cause of Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the cervix begin to change and grow out of control and form tumors. This change in cells, called dysplasia, is usually a gradual process that spans over many years. Although various factors can play a role in the development of cervical cancer, the most common cause is the human papillomavirus (HPV) — a common sexually transmitted infection (STI).
HPVs are actually a group of more than 200 related viruses, with roughly 30 of those types being associated with sexual contact. HPV is very common. In fact, if you are sexually active, there’s a good chance you’ve been exposed. One reason it’s so common is because HPV is easily passed from one person to another through skin-to-skin contact or any sexual activity without ever knowing it’s present.
The good news is that most HPVs are low-risk, meaning they don’t cause cancer and will often clear on their own within a couple of years. High-risk HPVs, however, may cause the abnormal growth of cervical cells or cancer in some women. Although a dozen or so high-risk HPVs have been identified, two — HPV types 16 and 18 — are responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
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 abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, and pain during intercourse.
What You Can Do to Reduce Your Risk for Cervical Cancer
As mentioned earlier, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers — and there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting it and/or HPV.
Get Cervical Cancer Screenings Regularly
Cervical cancer can be found early and even prevented with routine screening tests. Screening can identify precancer or cancer before a person has any symptoms. And early detection is the key to a good outcome. Be sure you schedule an appointment with your gynecologist for an exam and a PAP test. The provider will use a small brush to scrape some cervix cells for examination under a microscope. If HPV has caused cells to start to mutate, it can be caught early with this test. In fact it can catch dysplasia, or precancerous cells, so they can be treated before cancer develops.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women begin cervical cancer screenings (Pap test) when they turn 21 years of age. Their guidelines are as follows:
- Pap tests every three years for women 21-29 years of age. Unless there are abnormal Pap results, HPV testing is not recommended.
- Pap test and HPV test (co-testing) every five years for women 30-65 years of age. It is also acceptable to have a Pap test alone every three years.
- Women aged 65 or older who have had regular screening within the last 10 years and no serious pre-cancers within the last 20 years can stop getting screened.
- Women who have had a total hysterectomy (not related to a precancerous or cancerous diagnosis) can stop cervical cancer screenings.
Most insurances cover the cost of Pap test screenings at 100% as part of preventive care. If you don't have healthcare insurance, the National Cervical Cancer Coalition publishes resources that may be available for low-cost or free Pap testing in Colorado.
Use Condoms When Having Sex
While condoms don’t completely protect against HPV infections, they do help lower the risk that you’ll develop an HPV infection. Keep in mind that HPV can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact and without penetration. It can also spread through oral and anal sex, as well as the use of sex toys.
Limit the Number of Sexual Partners
Abstinence from sexual contact is not a realistic option for most adults. Therefore, if you do have sex, limit the number of sexual partners you have if you’d like to lower your exposure to HPV. It’s also best to choose a partner who has been sexually involved with a limited amount of partners as well. Most people with HPV don't have any symptoms, so they don't know they could pass on the virus to you.
Consider an HPV Vaccine
There are three vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent HPV infection: Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix. These vaccines have been designed to provide protection against new HPV infections. This can be beneficial for more than preventing cervical cancer. HPV is also related to some oral and throat cancers which the vaccine can help prevent as well.
Even if you have received 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.
While the HPV vaccine is currently recommended for 11-12 year olds (male and female), you can also receive it at a later age. For young people who weren’t vaccinated before age 15, the HPV vaccination is still recommended up to age 26, although three doses may be required for this slightly older age group. If you’re between 26 and 45 years old, you can still benefit from receiving the vaccine, although you’ve likely already been exposed to HPV. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
Taking the Right Steps to Protect Your Health
Even small steps can prove beneficial in protecting yourself from HPV and cervical cancer — along with several other types of cancer. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. We hope you’ll be able to follow these steps for regular screening and even prevent an HPV infection so you can dramatically lower your risk of cervical cancer.