5 Things You Need to Know About Preventing Cervical Cancer

gynecologist with stirrups

The good news about cervical cancer is that it’s completely preventable through vaccination and screening. Here are five things all women should know about cervical cancer:

Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), a skin virus for which a preventative vaccine now exists.

A staggering 99.7 percent of cervical cancer is caused by HPV. The HPV vaccine, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been available in the United States since 2006. The vaccine has been studied in tens of thousands of women and found to be safe and very effective in preventing HPV – and, as a result, in preventing cervical cancer.

HPV also causes other anogenital tract cancers, such as penile carcinoma, vulvar and vaginal cancer. HPV vaccination prevents these cancers as well.

While condoms can prevent the spread of other infections transmitted by bodily fluids – and protect against pregnancy – condoms are not reliable in preventing the spread of HPV, which is transmitted through intimate skin contact.

In the United States, we have seen significant declines in HPV-related diseases since the vaccine was introduced. In Australia, where the vaccine has been covered by national health insurance since 2007 and vaccination rates are very high, rates of HPV pre-cancers and cancers have declined even more significantly.

Girls and boys should receive the HPV vaccine starting at age 11

Because it’s a preventative vaccine, the HPV vaccine is intended to be given before a person is exposed to the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends the HPV vaccine for girls and boys ages 11 to 12. At this age, the vaccine is administered in two doses spaced six to 12 months apart.

Since this isn’t a school-mandated vaccine, parents need to be really proactive and ask their pediatricians and family practice physicians for it.

Older teens and adults also can receive the HPV vaccine.

Immune response to the HPV vaccine in adults and older teens is not quite as brisk, so recommendations are for a series of three doses, rather than two. These people have a greater likelihood of exposure to HPV because they are more likely to be sexually active. So HPV vaccination may be somewhat less effective with these older age groups.

Cervical cancer progresses slowly, so don’t skip your pap test.

HPV causes the cells to progress from a pre-cancer stage to invasive cancer, but the progression can be slow. So there is plenty of opportunity to capture cancer through screening before it develops.

Women should be vigilant about seeing their gynecologist for screening. Cervical cancer screening is often uses a combination of HPV and pap smear testing. Both tests are obtained through a swab of the cervix. The frequency of this testing varies and depends on factors that reflect risk for cervical cancer, such as age and HPV exposure. Women who have been vaccinated should still be screened, but their likelihood of abnormal screening results is certainly lower.

Treatment of pre-cancer involves a simple outpatient excisional procedure and this effectively prevents development of cancer.

In the absence of screening, cervical cancer is usually discovered at later stages where cure rates are lower and treatment is much more intensive. It may involve surgery with radical hysterectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.

Smoking greatly increases a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer.

Smokers are two to five times more likely to contract HPV. Studies also have shown that the virus is more persistent in smokers, especially heavy smokers, and their immune systems have a harder time clearing the virus. We focus on smoking cessation to help these women reduce their risk from HPV infection.

Kristine Zanotti, MD, is a gynecologic oncologist at University Hospitals.


University Hospitals Women’s Health Services

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