How to protect yourself against cervical cancer
January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month, a time to learn about early detection of cervical cancer through screening—and prevention through the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. Continue reading to learn more about how to protect yourself from cervical cancer.
The American Cancer Society estimated about 14,480 new cases of invasive cervical cancer for 2021, resulting in 4,290 deaths. Although it's still prevalent, the number of cases has dropped 88 percent since the HPV vaccine has been used since 2006, considering most cervical cancers are caused by HPV.
HPV and cervical cancer
About 13 million Americans are infected with HPV each year. This is typically from anal, vaginal, or oral sex—but in some cases, HPV can also be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. In most cases, the body's immune system fights against the virus, and it clears on its own without any signs or symptoms. This is precisely why the virus is so easily transmitted from person to person without knowing it.
It can be much more severe for those immune systems that can't fight the virus. In some circumstances, HPV can cause warts on the genitals or surrounding skin, and most commonly, cervical cancer in women. It isn't clear what causes cervical cancer—but it is known that different strains of HPV lead to most cases of cervical cancer.
Prevention and detection
Since there is no cure or treatment for HPV, early detection is critical through pelvic exams, Pap tests, and HPV tests. For women aged 21 to 29, health.gov recommends getting screened with a Pap test every three years. For women aged 30 to 65, it's recommended to choose one of the three options below:
- Get screened every three years with a Pap test
- Get screened every five years with an HPV test
- Get screened every five years with both a Pap test and an HPV test
Some doctors may suggest more frequent testing when a patient has an abnormal test result.
To protect children early on, education is crucial for younger patients around practicing safe sex and getting the HPV vaccination. The CDC recommends routine vaccination for everyone starting around age 11 or 12. While children should get vaccinated earlier, teens and young adults can be vaccinated until the age of 26. In specific cases, vaccination may be recommended for adults aged 27-45, although it is less effective since they have likely already been exposed to HPV by this age.
HPV vaccine safety and efficacy
HPV infections and cervical precancers have dropped significantly since the vaccine has been used in the United States.
- Among teen girls, infections with HPV types that cause most HPV cancers and genital warts have dropped 88 percent among teen girls and 81 percent among young women
- Among vaccinated women, the percentage of cervical precancers caused by the HPV types most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent.
More than 15 years of monitoring and research have shown that HPV vaccination is safe and effective. For more information on the efficacy of HPV vaccinations, guide patients to visit the CDC.
Symptoms and treatment
Since most people don't show symptoms, signs of cervical cancer are only detected from a pelvic exam and a Pap test. However, increased discharge and unusual bleeding can be indicators in some cases. Pain during or after sex and bleeding post-menopause are also symptoms worth mentioning.
According to cancer.net, any of the following could be signs or symptoms of cervical cancer:
- Blood spots or light bleeding between or following periods
- Menstrual bleeding that is longer and heavier than usual
- Bleeding after intercourse, douching, or a pelvic examination
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bleeding after menopause
- Unexplained, persistent pelvic and/or back pain
Although there isn't a cure for HPV, there are treatment options for cervical cancer by stage. However, when discovered early, the 5- year survival rate for women with invasive cervical cancer is 92%.
To learn more, visit Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center.