Deaths from cervical cancer are very preventable. Widespread implementation of routine Pap smears has significantly reduced cervical cancer mortality. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), mortality declined by almost 70 percent between 1955 and 1992.
Screening isn’t the only way to reduce your risk of cervical cancer. Other prevention techniques focus on improving your health and reducing exposure to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). Infection with HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.
Routine Pap smears help prevent cervical cancer deaths. Early stage cervical cancer has no symptoms. Therefore, these tests are needed to detect precancerous abnormalities and early-stage cervical cancer.
The survival rate for precancerous lesions is effectively 100 percent. Once lesions become cancerous, however, they are more difficult to treat. That is why it is important to get routine Pap smears. These tests can detect changes before they become problematic. Talk to your doctor about how often you need to be screened.
Most women get Pap smears during a routine pelvic exam. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends screenings every three to five years in women ages 21 to 65. The simple test uses a small tool to scrape cells from the cervix. It usually causes only mild discomfort.
If you have an abnormal Pap smear, you have options. Early treatment of precancerous lesions can prevent cancer from developing into cancer. Some lesions don’t even require treatment. Your doctor may just monitor them to see if they improve or get worse. Discuss your follow-up alternatives with your doctor.
Health insurance companies are required to cover Pap smears. If you have health insurance or are eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, you can receive free or low-cost Pap tests. If you do not have such coverage, sign up on the Health Insurance Marketplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program also offers free or low-cost access to Pap tests. To learn more about the program, call 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp.
The majority of cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Just two types of HPV—HPV 16 and 18—cause more than 70 percent of cervical cancers. There are currently two vaccines that can protect against HPV infection.
Gardasil protects against both HPV 16 and 18. It also protects against the two low cancer risk HPV types that cause most cases of genital warts.
Cervarix only protects against the two high-risk HPV types.
Who Needs Vaccination?
The CDC recommends that boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 26 should be vaccinated against HPV. Ideally, this vaccination should be at age 11 or 12. Vaccination is most effective if it is performed before a person starts having sex. Otherwise, there is a strong possibility that have already been exposed to HPV.
Both HPV vaccines have been approved for girls. Only Gardasil has been approved for boys.
The HPV vaccine is considered to be extremely safe. However, it is not a substitute for Pap smears. There are over 100 types of HPV that can infect humans. Therefore, cervical screening is still important, even for vaccinated girls.
Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of vaccination.
In addition to screening and vaccination, people have other options to reduce their risk of cervical cancer.
Reduce Sexual Risk Factors
Reducing sexual risk factors reduces your risk of HPV. This, in turn, makes it less likely you will get cervical cancer. Methods to reduce your risk of HPV include:
- always use condoms for vaginal and anal sex
- use barriers for oral sex
- have fewer sexual partners
Women below the age of 25 have a higher risk for genital HPV.
Live a Healthy Life
One major risk factor for cervical cancer is having a compromised immune system. Things that can impair the immune system include:
- HIV infection
- transplant rejection medication
- frequent use of prednisone or other steroids
Smokers are also more likely to develop cervical cancer. Therefore, it is a good idea to quit.