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Every year, 14,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer. In addition, 4,000 women will die from it every year, according to the American Cancer Society. The good news is that routine screenings and preventive measures may help to lower your risk of developing the disease. In fact, it’s the only gynecologic cancer that can be detected early with regular pap smear tests.
It’s important to know that cervical cancer is often closely linked with the human papillomavirus, also called HPV. HPV is a common infection, but when the body struggles to fight it off, it can cause abnormal changes to the cells of the cervix and potentially lead to cancer. Read on to learn more about cervical cancer and HPV.
1. 90% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
HPV is the most common infection transmitted through sexual activity. Many people with HPV don’t have symptoms, and it can spread quickly or affect the body years after contact. Most people have immune systems that are able to fight off the virus, just like the body gets rid of the common cold. However, others, especially those who have weakened immune systems, have a harder time clearing the virus. In those instances, HPV remains in the cells of the cervix and can begin to cause precancerous changes to those cells. As a result, more than 9 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer are attributed to HPV.
Just because you have HPV does not mean that you will get cervical cancer or any other HPV-related cancers, such as vaginal cancer or anal cancer. However, if you have the virus and are immunocompromised, you may be more likely to develop cervical cancer.
2. The HPV vaccine can significantly lower your risk of developing cervical cancer.
Fortunately, there is an FDA-approved HPV vaccine for anyone up to the age of 45, which can help your body clear an HPV infection better and faster. Many kids get vaccinated between 9 and 14 before they’re sexually active, and it’s recommended for both boys and girls. If you’re an adult under 45, you’re also eligible for the HPV vaccine.
The vaccine doesn’t eliminate your chances of getting cervical cancer, but it does reduce your risk because it increases your body’s ability to fight HPV. We estimate that it can take ten or more years for precancerous changes to develop in the cervix, so getting rid of the virus faster increases your odds of remaining cancer-free.
3. Routine screening options may involve testing for HPV.
In addition to getting the HPV vaccine, we recommend the pap smear test for every woman over the age of 21. The pap test is the only screening test approved for cervical cancer. It involves a gynecologist swabbing the inside of your cervix. Then, someone with expertise in looking at atypical cells under the microscope inspects them for any abnormalities. It’s a screening test used to detect any signs of pre-cancer or anything else concerning in the cervix.
Because of the link between cervical cancer and HPV, recommendations sometimes also include HPV testing that analyzes DNA to predict your chances of developing HPV-related cervical cancer. Current cervical cancer screening guidelines suggest that women over 25 should do one of the following:
- Get a pap test every three years, OR
- Get a pap test every five years, alongside HPV DNA testing
The HPV test is not given for females under the age of 21.
If your pap test reveals something abnormal, your doctor may recommend a medical procedure called a colposcopy. During a colposcopy, your gynecologist will use a special instrument called a colposcope to look for signs of disease on your cervix. During this procedure, they may also remove a small sample of tissue (biopsy) for further evaluation.
4. HPV isn’t curable, but there are many effective treatments available for cervical cancer.
Although there is no medication that gets rid of HPV, there are things you can do to arm your immune system if you have the infection. And most importantly, if HPV causes precancerous changes to the cervix, there are a variety of treatment options based on your unique needs. Cervical cancer treatment options vary based on several factors, including how advanced your cancer is (staging) and whether or not you want to be able to have children.
If you have severe precancerous lesions (high-grade dysplasia), your doctor may recommend an excisional procedure to remove the affected part of the cervix. In other cases, early-stage cervical cancer may require surgery. If the cancer spreads to other parts of the pelvis, your gynecologic oncologist may discuss the pros and cons of undergoing a combination of chemotherapy and radiation instead of surgery.
Listen to our DocTalk Podcast episode with Dr. Tunnage below to learn more about cervical cancer:
Take steps to prevent cervical cancer.
Whether or not you have HPV, there are several things you can do to take control of minimizing your risk of cervical cancer, including:
- Staying on top of screening with pap smear tests
- Getting the HPV vaccine
- Quitting smoking, which affects your immune system’s ability to fight off infection
- Practicing safe sex and/or limiting the number of sexual partners you have