Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States among women. About 13,000 women develop cervical cancer each year, and about 4,000 of them die. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV.
The scoop on HPV
The human papillomavirus is a viral infection spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact. More than 40 types of HPV viruses can be spread through contact during sexual activity including anal, oral, and vaginal sex, even if you don’t have actual sexual intercourse.
HPV infections are actually very common. In fact, most women and men get at least one HPV infection during their lives and may never even know it. Most HPV viruses don’t cause cancer, but some can.
Condoms can help protect against HPV, but because the virus can be spread via skin not covered by a condom, they don’t offer full protection.
The HPV vaccine
Most HPV viruses go away on their own, but not all, and there isn’t a cure. But there is an HPV vaccine, available for many men and women, that protects against most of the viruses which can cause cervical cancer.
The vaccine is recommended for both teen boys and girls but can be given to adult men and women up to age 26. So far, the vaccine has not been studied for people older than 26.
The HPV vaccine is given in two or three doses, six months apart, depending on how old you are when you get the first shot. The health professionals at the Center for Women’s Health can talk to you about whether you’re eligible for the HPV vaccine. The vaccine isn’t effective unless you’ve had the whole series of shots.
Pap tests help detect cervical cancer early
Two tests, the Pap smear (short for Papilloma) and HPV test, can help detect cervical cancer. To conduct the tests, cells are gently scraped from the cervix with a swab during a pelvic exam, and the cells are then examined in the lab. The Pap test can find changes in cells and abnormal cells, while the HPV test simply checks for the presence of the HPV virus.
According to the National Cancer Institute, regular Pap screening can reduce the possibility of a woman being diagnosed or dying of cervical cancer by 80%. If the screening tests are abnormal, further testing is done.
How often should you be screened?
The American Cancer Society recommends these testing guidelines:
- Ages 21-29: have a Pap smear every three years
- Ages 30-65: a Pap test and an HPV test every five years
- After age 65: women who had no abnormal Pap results in the past ten years no longer need screening
Women with a history of abnormal Pap tests should follow their doctors’ recommendations for screening:
Don’t put off screening because you’re afraid to find out the results. Not all abnormal cells turn into cancer and cervical cancers are often slow growing. According to the National Cancer Institute, it can take 10-30 years from the time of HPV infection until cancer forms. That means that regular screening — and the HPV vaccine, if it’s appropriate for you — can really reduce your risk of cervical cancer.
At Center for Women’s Health, we regularly review guidelines on screening tests. We’ll discuss current recommendations with you at each visit and alert you to any significant recommendation changes. Call our office in Oxford, North Carolina, to schedule an appointment, or use our convenient online booking tool.