Cervical cancer begins in the cervix, the part of the uterus or womb that opens to the vagina. It is the only gynecologic cancer that can be prevented by regular screening (Pap test and HPV test) and early intervention as well as vaccination against the virus that causes the disease. Cervical cancer is extremely preventable and treatable when found early.
Worldwide, cervical cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among women. Every year, almost 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer and approximately 4,000 women die from it. In the United States, rates of cervical cancer have fallen by 50% since the Pap test was introduced. The Pap examines a woman’s cervical cells to determine if there are any abnormalities. Women are also tested for HPV. Recent advances in screening and the availability of a vaccine hold the promise to wipe out cervical cancer.
A virus—the Human Papillomavirus, or HPV—causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV is a common sexually transmitted virus. Most people with HPV never even know they have it. An HPV infection rarely leads to cervical cancer. In most women, the cells in the cervix return to normal after the body’s immune system destroys the HPV infection. However, some HPV infections do not go away and may remain present in the cervical cells for years. Long-standing infection can lead to changes in the cells that can progress to cancer.
You can prevent cervical cancer with four steps. Talk to your doctor about these important steps:
First, make sure you get the cervical cancer vaccine if you are eligible. This vaccine is recommended for 11 and 12 year old girls and is approved for girls and women ages 9 – 26. Boys may also get the vaccine, so that they do not contract or spread HPV. The virus is responsible for other cancers, and the HPV vaccine may prevent those.
Second, get your annual check-up and regular Pap test. Women should start having Pap tests at age 21 or within 3 years of starting sexual activity, whichever comes first. In their 20’s, women should have a Pap test every year or two, depending on the type of Pap test being used. At 30, your doctor may recommend having a Pap test only every 2 or 3 years depending on your Pap test history and your own experiences.
Third, get an HPV test when recommended. An HPV test is available, for women over 30, to inform you and your health care provider if you have one of the HPV types that is more likely to cause cancer. It is usually conducted at the same time as the Pap test. If you are over the age of 30 and both your HPV and Pap tests are normal, you do not need to repeat the test for two to three years, unless you have other medical conditions (immune diseases, etc.)
Fourth, condoms can help prevent transmission of HPV, although they are not 100% effective. If you have an abnormal Pap test or have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, treatment is available. Because our bodies fight the virus, your doctor may first recommend “watchful waiting” which means that s/he will re-evaluate you for the presence of abnormal cells in six months. Other possible steps are colposcopy – more detailed examination of the cervix – and/or biopsy – taking a small piece of the cervix to determine the extent of the cellular abnormalities. If cancer is found, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous cells and possibly radiation.
For more information see:
Gynecologic Cancer Foundation: www.cervicalcancercampaign.org
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/cervical
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/
The Foundation for Women’s Cancer:
http://www.foundationforwomenscancer.org/educational-materials/cervical-cancer-edmaterials/ (in English and Spanish)