Cervical Cancer Detected Earlier Thanks to Pap Tests and HPV Vaccination
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer-related death for women in the U.S. Thanks to pap tests and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, cervical cancer rates have decreased significantly in the past 40 years.
The cervix connects the uterus (or womb) to the vagina (or birth canal). Unlike the uterus and ovaries, your cervix is a visible structure. Your gynecologist or primary care provider can see it while conducting gynecological exams. This visibility, coupled with regular pap tests, allows your physician to detect any precancerous changes a lot earlier than other gynecological cancers like uterine and ovarian cancers.
“Because of regular screening, the HPV vaccine and the fact that cervical cancers take a long time to develop, cervical cancer is easier to detect than many other gynecological cancers,” says Northwestern Medicine OB-GYN Marianne Krupka, DO.
Pap Tests and Cervical Cancer Detection
During a pap test, your physician uses a brush or plastic spatula to gently scrape cells off the cervix. They send these cells to a pathologist, who uses a microscope to see if the cells look normal, precancerous or cancerous.
If your pap test results indicate abnormal cell growth that is not cancer, or based on your age and personal and family history, your physician may recommend more frequent pap test screening than patients without risk factors.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists both suggest starting screening at age 21. The American Cancer Society suggests that cervical cancer screening begin at age 25.
Talk to your primary care provider or gynecologist to determine a screening regimen that works best for you.
Cervical Cancer Symptoms
In between your regular screening visits, call your provider if you notice these symptoms:
- Bleeding after intercourse, even if you’re not on your period
- Pain with intercourse
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
Cervical Cancer Risk
Risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- Age. If you are older than 30, you have a higher chance of having abnormal cells that persist for a long time in your cervix, and therefore a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
- HPV virus. Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. There are more than 40 different types of HPV. According to the CDC, 13 types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. When these types of HPV linger in the body, they can cause cells to divide more rapidly, which increases the risk of abnormal cell development and cancer. Sexually transmitted HPV infection puts roughly 10% of women who have it at risk for cervical cancer.
- Immune deficiencies. People with HIV have a higher risk of developing cervical cancer.
- Unprotected sexual activity. In addition to not using protection during intercourse, starting sexual activity at a young age and having multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of cervical cancer.
- Family history. If you’ve had a first-degree relative with cervical cancer, your risk is higher.
Lower Your Risk of Cervical Cancer
You can lower your risk of developing cervical cancer by doing the following:
- Get the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in reducing risk of precancerous changes in the cervix. The HPV vaccination is recommended for everyone aged 11 through 26. If you are between the ages of 26 and 45, talk to your physician to see if the HPV vaccine is appropriate for you. A few types of HPV vaccine now help protect people from many of the strains of HPV most commonly associated with cancer. However, no vaccine has been developed that protects against all the high-risk strains of HPV.
- Use protection if you are sexually active.
- Get regular pap tests, per the discretion of your physician.