Cervical Cancer Is a Preventable Disease
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the high-risk types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which nearly every sexually active person will be exposed to in their lifetime. People with healthy immune systems are able to clear the virus, but when the high risk strains “hijack” or infect specific cells of the cervix it can lead to abnormal cell growth and precancerous changes.
Over time and with persistent infection, this leads to cervical cancer. HPV infection can also lead to penile, anal and throat and mouth cancers. Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), incidence rates of HPV-associated cancers have continued to rise, with approximately 39,000 new HPV-associated cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. People who smoke or have lowered immune systems also have increased risk of developing HPV-related cancers.
How is it prevented?
HPV infection and therefore cervical cancer can be prevented by vaccination. There are now two FDA vaccines approved for males and females between ages nine and 26, and according to the latest recommendations from the CDC, all children between nine and 13 should complete the vaccine series. Children younger than 15 should receive two doses of the vaccine six months apart and those over age 15 should complete a three-dose series. Keep in mind, for a woman, vaccination does NOT mean she should refrain from receiving a routine gynecological screening known as a Pap smear since the vaccine does not 100 percent guarantee against the development of cervical cancer.
How is it detected?
Pap smears detect precancerous changes that occur in cells and also can now test for HPV infection. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women begin annual screening for cervical cancer at age 21. A woman should consult with her doctor about the frequency of screening, as it depends on age, results from prior testing and other health factors.
Symptoms are also important for detection. These can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, discharge, bleeding after intercourse or back pain. A woman should seek care if she develops any of these warning signs as well as maintain routine and appropriate screenings with her gynecologist.
How is it treated?
Precancerous changes of the cervix are treated with simple procedures. Treatment can prevent precancerous changes from becoming cervical cancer. Early stage cervical cancer is curable with surgery.
Remember, by quitting smoking, vaccinating against HPV, undergoing regular Pap smears and protecting yourself against sexually-transmitted diseases, you can help reduce your risk to developing cervical cancer.
Article by Dr. Ruth Stephenson, a gynecologic oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey