Half of new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed in women who have never, or rarely, been tested. We can easily change this stat.
More than 4,000 women will die from cervical cancer in 2019, reports the American Cancer Society.
However, half of new cervical cancer cases occur in women who have never or rarely been tested.
“Approximately 1 in 5 women are not getting regularly screened for cervical cancer,” Dr. Jessica Shepherd, OB/GYN and gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center, told Healthline. “Making sure you’re getting regular testing is one of the best ways to protect your health. Cervical cancer is not only treatable, it’s preventable.”
Even if you feel healthy and have no family history of cancer, Shepherd says you can still be at risk.
The United States Preventive Services Task Force suggests that women ages 21 through 29 get screened with a Pap test every 3 years. For women 30 to 65, the task force suggests being screened with any of three tests:
- every 5 years with high-risk HPV testing alone
- every 5 years with Pap and high-risk HPV co-testing
- every 3 years with a Pap test alone
For women with certain risk factors, their doctors may recommend screening more often or beyond age 65.
“Cervical cancer testing is covered under the Affordable Care Act. This means you will not be responsible for a co-pay, deductible, or other out-of-pocket costs,” said Shepherd. “If you don’t have health insurance, there are clinics across the United States that provide testing at low or no cost. Women, no matter their circumstances, can and should get tested.”
“Most HPV infections show no signs or symptoms, which means most people have no idea they have it. The virus can also stay undetected in your system for years. That’s why it’s so important to get tested,” Shepherd said.
To encourage people to take the seriousness of screening to heart, the We Can Change This Stat campaign suggests women go to their doctor each year and ask about the Pap test and HPV test together.
“When you think about how screening through Pap and the HPV tests can really detect cervical cancer before it becomes cervical cancer, it gives us complete power to take control of our health,” Shan Boodram, sexologist and author of “The Game of Desire,” told Healthline.
Boodram has teamed up with the campaign in hopes of empowering women.
“As somebody who talks about sexual health and sex education all day long, sometimes things still slip through the cracks for me. I can relate to going to the doctor and getting a physical but not asking about HPV or getting a Pap or suggesting I get both at the same time,” Boodram said. “This campaign gave me information that would help my life, and I’m proud to share [that information] with [my] community.”
She points out that HPV is confusing, and all the more reason to talk with your doctor regularly about it.
“We hear so much information about HPV… there’s still confusion as to whether men can have HPV or not and there’s a lot of fog across all information about how often you’re supposed to get Pap tests… and we don’t necessarily know what symptoms to look for,” Boodram said.
Becoming educated by asking your doctor questions can help demystify the virus, she noted.
“There was an incredible study that showed most doctors think their patients will bring up sexual health if they’re interested, whereas most patients are waiting for the doctor to bring up sexual health,” Boodram said. “If you find it uncomfortable talking about sex with your doctor, remember that you still might have to bring it up first.”
Shepherd agreed, and stressed the importance of the annual well exam.
“[They are] a great way to build a strong relationship with your doctor and ensure you’re up to date on all of your health screenings, including for cervical cancer, STDs, breast cancer and more,” said Shepherd. “But all women have the power to change this stat by making an appointment with their doctor to ensure they are caught up on screening,”
To nudge yourself when it’s time to make your appointment, the Change This Stat campaign, offers a calendar reminder tool.
HPV infections and abnormal cells on the cervix that can lead to cancer have dropped since the vaccine has been in use.
Among vaccinated women, the percentage of cervical precancers caused by the HPV types most often linked to cervical cancer has dropped by 40 percent.
“Any steps someone can take toward preventing HPV and HPV-related cancers are so important. Through vaccination and screening, we have the potential to eradicate cervical cancer. There’s no downside to that,” said Shepherd.
Not only do vaccines protect those who receive them from contracting HPV, they also protect HPV from spreading to others, she adds.
And for those who feel judged for taking control of their sexual health, Shepherd says, “Don’t.”
“There is a misconception that those who contract HPV or any other viruses are promiscuous. However, people can contract HPV during their first sexual encounter or their twentieth,” she said. “Many people don’t even know if they are infected and this leaves their partners at risk for contracting HPV as well.”
“Don’t allow your family or religion or the belief of what you’re supposed to be doing get in the way of your healthcare,” she said. “If you’re not sexually active, it might be a great practice while you’re at the doctor to start getting tested or talking to your doctor [about whether or not] the vaccine is the way to go.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.