Over the last forty years, the cervical cancer death rate has decreased more than fifty percent due to the increased use of the Pap test. This screening procedure can find changes in the cervix before the cancer develops. It also can find cancer in earlier stages, when it’s most curable. Cervical cancer is most commonly found in women during midlife. Most of these women are under fifty years of age. Although the Pap test has significantly reduced the number of cervical cancer cases the American Cancer Society still estimates that nearly 12,820 of new cases will be diagnosed this year. From those new cases about 4,210 will die from cervical cancer, proving we still have much more work to be done to decrease those numbers!
Cervical cancer is the first cancer in women to be identified as being caused almost exclusively by a virus called HPV, or human papilloma virus. HPV is a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex and skin to skin contact. Body fluid does not have to be exchanged to contract HPV. There are many types of HPV. In most cases, the virus is harmless and most people have no symptoms. The body clears most HPV infections naturally (over the age thirty HPV is less likely to be cleared naturally). However, some HPV types can cause changes on a woman’s cervix that can lead to cervical cancer over time, while other types can cause genital or skin warts. HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. By age 50 approximately 80% of women have been infected with some type of HPV. Although there is currently no cure for HPV infection, there are ways to treat the warts and abnormal cell growth that HPV causes. HPV can be contracted from one partner, remain dormant, and then later be unknowingly transmitted to another sexual partner, including a spouse. This is why regular Pap and HPV tests are so important. Other risk factors associated with cervical cancer is smoking, long term use of birth control pills, being overweight, having multiple sexual partners, having a baby before age seventeen, and family history of cervical cancer.
In some cultures, people don’t talk about HPV, cervical cancer, or other cancers caused by HPV because they perceive these as being diseases of sexually promiscuous people. However, HPV is extremely common, affecting most adults. In fact, almost every sexually active person will contract some form of HPV at some time in his or her adult life. Avoiding the discussion will not make HPV go away, but cervical cancer and HPV can be prevented through screening and vaccination.
Cervical cancer is completely preventable if precancerous cell changes are detected and treated early. A well-proven way to prevent cervical cancer is to have testing (screening) to find pre-cancers before they can turn into invasive cancer. The Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test are used for this. If a pre-cancer is found it can be treated, stopping cervical cancer before it really starts. Most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests. Cervical cancer most commonly takes ten to twenty years or more to develop so women who are no longer sexually active should still have Pap tests. An HPV test can be done on the same sample of cells collected from the Pap test. Another way to prevent cervical cancer is by getting an HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens (both boys and girls) aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given as early as age 9 and until age 26. The vaccine is given in a series of either two or three shots, depending on age. It is important to note that even women who are vaccinated against HPV need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer. Not smoking and using condoms can also reduce the risk of cervical cancer. Together with screening and the use of the HPV vaccine, the rate of cervical cancer will continue to decrease in the future.
This article was authored by the Mercy Cancer Center staff. For more information about the cancer center, visit cantonmercy.org/cancer/.