Early detection and prevention have turned what was once one of the nation's leading cancer killers into one of the most treatable. Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer that, when found early, is also highly curable.
The main cause of cervical cancer is the human papillomavirus (HPV). An estimated 79 million Americans are infected with HPV – the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. In fact, HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
“Not everyone who has HPV will get cervical cancer,” said Dr. Judith Scott, a gynecologist at Methodist Physicians Clinic Women's Center. “There are nearly 30 to 40 different types of HPV. Some can cause genital warts, while other types lead to cancer.”
So what can you do to lower your cervical cancer risk?
Have regular screenings. Women should start getting regular Pap tests starting at age 21. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends testing for women under 30 once every three years, then every five years until age 65.
According to ACOG, the use of the Pap test has reduced cervical cancer deaths over the last 30 years by more than 50 percent. Nearly 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Fewer than 4,000 died from the disease.
“Because cervical cancer most commonly takes 10 years to 20 years or more to develop, we really encourage regular screening tests and follow-up throughout a woman's life,” Scott said. “A gynecological exam includes much more than a Pap test, which is why an annual wellness visit is so important.”
Get the HPV vaccine. HPV vaccines are a strong weapon in preventing cervical cancer. These safe, effective vaccines protect both women and men against some of the most common HPV types and the health problems the virus can cause.
“We recommend the HPV vaccine to all our patients. It helps protect against two types of HPV that cause about 75 percent of cervical cancer cases,” Scott said. “Since we know HPV causes the Pap problems, let's do primary prevention.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends girls receive the HPV vaccine series anywhere from ages 9 to 26. Most commonly, it's given in the middle school age group. Boys ages 11 through 21 can also get vaccinated.
“Pediatricians are doing a great job of getting their patients vaccinated when they are in the middle school age group,” Scott said. “I would say 90 percent of the patients in our Adolescent Gynecology clinic have already completed their vaccine series.”
Use a condom. If you are sexually active, wearing a latex condom may lower the risk of HPV and HPV-related diseases, such as genital warts and cervical cancer. However, HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom - so they may not fully protect against HPV.
For more information about HPV and cervical cancer, begin the dialog today with your health care provider. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Click here to schedule your screening today.
Katina Gordon is a public relations and social media specialist for Methodist Health System. She guest blogs occasionally for livewellnebraska.com.