Cervical cancer was once the number one cause of cancer death in American women. However, because of routine testing and developments in preventative medicine, that is no longer the case. However, there’s more work to be done to protect women. January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to brush on some facts about cervical health, HPV, and cervical cancer.
1. HPV Infection is the Biggest Risk Factor for Developing Cervical Cancer
Like most cancers, the exact cause of cervical cancer has not been confirmed, but doctors and researchers are certain that HPV plays a big role. HPV is a common virus with many different types, and many people will get HPV at some point but most don’t develop cancer. HPV infection and/or other factors cause cells in the cervix to mutate (change) and multiply excessively.
2. Over 13,000 New Cases of Cervical Cancer Are Diagnosed Each Year in the US
Cervical cancer is diagnosed most frequently in women between 34 and 44. Mortality rates of cervical dropped significantly after Pap tests became routine, but it has not changed much since. That’s why Cervical Health Awareness Month is important, so more work can be done to make rates drop even more.
3. Certain People Are at Higher Risk
Some women are more likely to get cervical cancer than others. According to the American Cancer Society, in the United States, Hispanic women are most likely to get cervical cancer, followed by African-Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and whites. The people in the US with the lowest risk of getting cervical cancer are American Indians and Alaskan natives.
4. You Can Take Steps to Reduce Your Risks
The goal of Cervical Health Awareness is to help women understand the risk factors and causes of cervical cancer, treatment options, and how they can protect themselves. Regular screenings are critical for cervical health. Screening does not prevent cervical cancer from developing, but regular testing is critical in catching signs of cancer early. If cervical cancer is diagnosed early, it is easier to treat.
There are two types of tests used to screen for cervical cancer:
- Pap test: This test detects early cell changes in the cervix before they become cancer or find cancer early, making it easier to treat. The Pap test is performed by your gynecologist by inserting a speculum into the vagina and collecting cells from the cervix with a swab. The cells are then examined in a lab.
- HPV DNA test: This test looks at cervical cells to find pieces of the DNA of the types of HPV linked to cancer. The test can be performed using the same swab as the Pap test, or a separate swab may be collected.
Cervical cancer can also be prevented by an HPV vaccine that protects against the two high-risk types of the virus that are linked to cancer. The vaccine can also protect against the types of HPV that cause genital warts. More information on the HPV vaccine can be found on the CDC website as well as later on in this list.
5. Regular Screenings Should Start at 21
The CDC and American Cancer Society both recommend that all women begin to get regular screenings for HPV and cervical cancer starting at age 21. How often you need to be screened depends on your age and the results of previous tests. All women should have an annual exam each year until age 65, in which the provider performs a breast and pelvic exam. The frequency of the Pap screening will be addressed with the patient during this visit based on the patient’s age, history, and risk factors.
6. Both Girls and Boys Should Get the HPV Vaccine Early
While only women get cervical cancer, both boys and girls should get the HPV vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that two doses of the HPV vaccine for all boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 12 years old. The second dose is given 6-12 months after the first. People starting the vaccine series between ages 15-45 need three doses over six months.
At Triangle Physicians for Women, we provide full-scope obstetric and gynecologic care with a focus on the treatment and prevention of diseases like HPV and cervical cancer. Our services include comprehensive gynecological exams, Pap smears as well as HPV vaccination. If you have questions or concerns about your cervical health, call (919) 678-6900 to make an appointment at one of our offices in Holly Springs or Cary.