January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, but let’s admit it: Any day is a good day to prevent cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is silent by deadly because it rarely causes symptoms in its early stages making detection more difficult. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and, for some, it will be too late to treat (CDC, 2019).
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus (not the same type of HPV that causes genital warts). While there are many different strains of HPV, only a few have been known to cause changes to the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer if undetected and untreated. HPV is very common in the United States: as much as 80% of sexually active people have been exposed at some point in their life (Rush, 2019).
However, the good news is that cervical cancer can be prevented! Here are some ways that you can help keep your cervix cancer free:
1. Get Vaccinated: There is a cancer-prevention vaccine, so make sure you get it! There are two vaccines available that help protect against the most dangerous HPV strains that may lead to cervical cancer. Typically the vaccination is injected over the course of three shots given at separate times, but the good news is that once you have been vaccinated, you usually don’t need to be revaccinated. The CDC provides recommendations on who and when we should be vaccinated:
- HPV vaccine is recommended for routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 years. (Vaccination can be started at age 9.)
- Females aged 13 through 26 years and males aged 13 through 21 years who have not been previously vaccinated or did not complete their full vaccination series
It is especially important that adolescent women be vaccinated before they are exposed to HPV in the first place. However, even if you have been infected with HPV in the past, still get the vaccine! The vaccination still provides protection.
2. Get Your Pap: The Pap smear is a screening test that helps detect cervical abnormalities that may lead to cervical cancer. Women should start having Pap smears at age 21 and continue having them every three (3) years if results are normal. For women age 30 and over, a Pap screening should be performed alongside an HPV test. If the HPV results are negative, testing can be done every five (5) years. It is important to stay up to date on your Pap screening because the American Cancer Society estimates that between 60 to 80 percent of newly diagnosed cancer patients had not had a Pap screening in the past five (5) years or ever (Rush, 2019).
3. Maintain Follow Up: If your Pap screening is abnormal, your healthcare provider will most likely want to perform follow up testing. It is important to follow up with your provider and ensure all of the proper testing is done.
4. Quit Smoking: Research has shown that smoking increases a woman’s risk of getting cervical cancer. Some estimate that cigarette smoke doubles the risk of cancer (Rush, 2019). For this reason, it is important to stop smoking and avoid second-hand exposure.
5. Stay Safe: Having multiple sex partners increases the risk of contracting HPV. Practicing monogamy and wearing a condom are great ways to protect yourself from HPV. Yet, it is important to know that HPV can be transmitted just be genital touching and without penetration. HPV can also be transmitted to areas outside of the condom; therefore, it is highly recommended to receive the HPV vaccination.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). HPV vaccination recommendations.
Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/hpv/hcp/recommendations.html.
Rush University Medical Center (2019). 5 tips for preventing cervical cancer. Retrieved from https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/preventing-cervical- cancer.