Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
By Leslie Brott, MD
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers affecting women. According to the American Cancer Society, it is estimated that in 2020 there will be 13,800 new cases diagnosed and 4,290 women will die from cervical cancer. Cervical cancer occurs when cancer cells develop in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus (womb) that connects to the vagina. Most often, it occurs in women age 40 or older.
Symptoms of cervical cancer can include pelvic pain, pain during sex, abnormal vaginal discharge or irregular vaginal bleeding. However, cervical cancer is a highly preventable disease with the use of vaccination and screening tests such as the pap smear.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
Cancer of the cervix is almost always caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is a sexually transmitted virus.
Of the many strains of HPV, there are 13 “high-risk” types which are more likely to cause cancer. By the age of 50, over 80 percent of women will have had some form of HPV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are more than 20 percent of adults in the United States have a form of “high-risk” HPV. Other cancers caused by HPV can occur in the throat, tongue, penis, anus, and vagina.
The good news is that cervical cancer is preventable. Two highly effective preventive tools include the HPV vaccine and the Papanicolaou (Pap) smear.
Preventing the spread of HPV through vaccination greatly reduces the risk of cervical cancer. To prevent HPV infection, females and males, between the ages of nine and 26, should receive the HPV vaccine which targets the high-risk strains. The vaccine prevents infection with the high-risk HPV strains which cause cancer as well as the strains which cause genital warts. Depending on age, the vaccines are administered in a two- or three-shot series. Most insurance plans pay for the vaccine. According to the CDC, additional ways to prevent the infection include the use of condoms and limiting the number of sexual partners. Smoking cessation can prevent some types of cervical cancer as well.
Cervical cells infected with HPV may transform into cancer, but this occurs over several years. The Pap smear is a screening test that can detect early changes that can lead to cancer. If early changes are detected, they can be effectively treated to prevent cancer from occurring. A Pap smear is recommended every three years for women between the ages of 21 and 65. Between the ages of 30 and 65, an additional test for HPV can be done with the Pap. If both the Pap and the HPV test are normal/negative, then Pap testing can be done every five years. Generally, screening ends at the age of 65.
The Pap smear and the HPV vaccine have dramatically reduced the incidence of cervical cancer in the United States, according to the CDC.
When it comes to cervical health, prevention and early detection are key. Be sure to speak with your primary care physician on steps you can take to prevent and screen for cervical cancer.