What Every Woman Should Know About Cervical Cancer Protection

Just a few short decades ago, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of cancer-related death among American women. Today, thanks to routine cervical cancer screenings using the Pap test, far fewer women are dying from cervical cancer than ever before. That’s good news.

Still, it’s estimated that more than 13,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer this year, and of those, more than 4,000 will die from the disease. We can do better. Read on to find out how.

The link between HPV and cervical cancer

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are over 200 different types of HPV, and of those, roughly 40 strains are known to spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact.

HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the United States — nearly all sexually active people contract at last one type of HPV at some point in their lives. In fact, most people contract HPV for the first time shortly after they become sexually active.

Nearly 80 million Americans are currently infected with some form of HPV, and another 14 million people become newly infected every year.

About nine in 10 people who get HPV never develop symptoms or complications, because their bodies fight off the infection effectively. It’s also possible for the virus to stay dormant, causing you to develop symptoms months or even years later, making it more difficult to know exactly when the initial infection occurred.

There are two general categories of sexually-transmitted HPV infection:

Low-risk HPV

This type can cause genital warts, or small, contagious bumps that appear on or around the genitals.

High-risk HPV

This is the type that can eventually lead to cervical cancer. It can also lead to vulvar and vaginal cancers in women, penile cancer in men, and anal and throat cancer in both genders.

HPV screening: Know your status

The cervical HPV test is designed to detect the presence of the two specific types of HPV that increase your risk of developing cervical cancer — HPV type 16 and HPV type 18.

This important screening tool, which is recommended for women over the age of 30, involves taking samples of your cervical cells in a quick procedure that’s similar to a Pap smear, and often done in conjunction with one.

A negative result means you don’t have either type of HPV that causes cervical cancer.

A positive result means you do have one of the types of high-risk HPV that can lead to cervical cancer. It’s important to note, however, that a positive result from an HPV test doesn’t mean you have cancer — it means you have a greater risk of developing the disease.

Pap test power: Early detection is best

Routine Pap smear tests are, without a doubt, the No. 1 reason that death from cervical cancer declined by more than 50% in the US over the last three decades.

Performed during a routine pelvic exam, the Pap test checks your cervix — which is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina — for abnormal cells. Changes in these cells may be an early indicator of cervical cancer.

When abnormal cells are found before they turn into cancer cells, however, cervical cancer can almost always be prevented. And if it’s found early, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers.

For these reasons, getting regular Pap tests is one of the best things women of all ages can do to cut their risk of this deadly disease.  

General screening recommendations suggest that women should have their first Pap test at the age of 21, and have further Pap tests every three years through the age of 29.

Once you reach the age of 30, it’s recommended that you begin having your Pap test — along with an HPV test — every five years up to the age of 65.

Past the age of 65, you may be advised to continue having regular Pap tests if you’ve ever had an abnormal result. Women who never have an abnormal Pap smear can generally stop having the test after the age of 65.

HPV vaccination: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Because there’s no cure for HPV, and nearly all sexually active people will come in contact with the virus at some point, vaccination — when possible — is essential.

The HPV vaccine works best when it’s received prior to the start of sexual activity. For this reason, it’s recommended for all preteen boys and girls aged 11 or 12. Through the age of 14, the vaccine is given in two doses, spaced six months apart.

Teenage girls and young women who didn’t receive an HPV vaccine earlier in life can still receive the vaccine through the age of 26, but achieving full protection requires three doses of the vaccine.

The vaccine isn’t effective unless you’ve had the whole series of shots, and it also isn’t effective if you already have HPV.

Dr. Wendy Hurst in Englewood, New Jersey likes to take the guesswork out of health management. We can help you stay on top of your recommended screenings and let you know about any significant guideline changes. Call our office to schedule an appointment.

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