Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by exposure to the human papillomavirus or HPV. The good news is that cervical cancer is almost always preventable, however, there’s a lot of confusion when it comes to the facts. Understanding more about the connection between HPV and cervical health, in general, can greatly help in the prevention of this kind of cancer. Below is some very important information every woman should know.
HPV: Where Most Cervical Cancers Begin
Cervical cancer is a disease that forms in the tissues of a woman’s cervix–the lower part of the uterus (womb) that connects to the vagina (birth canal). According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, 99% of cervical cancers were caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease (STD).
HPVs are a group of more than 200 related viruses. More than 40 HPV types can be easily passed between partners through sexual contact. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CD), about 1 in 4 people are currently infected in the United States, making HPV very common.
Sexually-transmitted HPV types fall into two categories: low-risk HPVs and high-risk HPVs. In most cases, HPVs are considered low-risk and do not cause cancer. High-risk HPVs, however, may cause abnormal cervical cells or cancer. Although approximately a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified, two specific types, HPV 16 and 18, are responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancer cases.
Related reading: HPV and Cervical Cancer: What’s the Connection?
Fortunately, the majority of women infected with HPV will not develop cancer and most pre-cancerous cells will resolve on their own. Often times, this occurs within 1 to 2 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 are experienced, 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 if testing for HPV and/or cancerous cells on the cervix is a good option for you.
Cervical Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting HPV and/or cervical cancer.
1. Get Regular Screenings
Routine screening tests for cervical cancer are key for early detection and prevention. Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. Much in part to women undergoing routine cervical cancer screening (Pap tests), the cervical cancer death rate in the United States continues to decline by approximately 2% each year. The earlier cervical abnormalities are detected, the easier it is to treat.
The American Cancer Society has certain guidelines in place regarding cervical cancer screenings, 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.
2. Have Protected 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.
3. Reduce Your Number of Sexual Partners
Abstinence from sexual contact is not a realistic option for most adults. Therefore, if you do choose to have sex, consider limiting the number of partners you have. The fewer partners you have will reduce your chance of potentially being exposed to HPV. It’s also a good idea to choose a partner who has had limited partners, too. The fewer partners either of you has had, the lower the risk will be of contracting (or spreading) HPV. As a preventative measure, you may want to be tested periodically for HPV or other STDs.
4. 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. It is still recommended that you follow the Pap test screening guidelines even if you have been vaccinated. Talk to your gynecologist or your primary care physician about these vaccines and whether they’re right for you.
Protect Yourself from Cervical Cancer
At Arizona Oncology, we encourage you to seek educational information to help protect yourself against HPV and cancer. Remember, the more you know and the better lifestyle decisions you make can greatly help reduce your risk.
If you are in need of a cervical cancer screening, there are several facilities in the Phoenix area that can serve you. Some of these include:
- Arizona Department of Health Services (888) 257-8502
- Adelante Healthcare (877) 809-5092
- Valleywise Heath (602) 344-6600
- Planned Parenthood Maryvale Health Center (602) 277-7526