According to the Centers for Disease Control, all women are at risk for cervical cancer – and approximately 14,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with this potentially deadly disease this year. Cervical cancer most commonly occurs in women over the age of 30 and is most often associated with long-term human papilloma virus (HPV) infection.
Though most cases are sexually transmitted, those who are not sexually active can become infected. A common myth is the HPV vaccine promotes premature sexual activity, which is completely untrue. No studies have shown the HPV vaccine to increase sexual activity. The HPV vaccine does not cause teens and preteens to become sexually active.
“The pandemic has taken a toll on women’s health – and one way is through the missed routine preventative care including annual exams and screenings,” Bryn Meredith, DO, FAAP, pediatrician with CHI Memorial Pediatric Diagnostic Associates. “We know that routine screening detects cancer early, even if you have no signs or symptoms. It also increases the likelihood that treatments will be successful.”
There are two main ways to prevent cervical cancer – routine screening and the HPV vaccine.
Annual Pap Smear. A pap smear looks for precancerous changes in the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. When these precancers changes are found early, they can be removed before becoming cancerous. Pap smears can also be performed in combination with an HPV test that identifies the virus responsible for these changes in the cervix.
Beginning at age 21, routine pap smears are recommended every three years. For women over 30 through age 65, this is combined with an HPV screening every three years or more frequently if you’ve had a positive test. Women at high risk of cervical cancer may need to be screened more often.
HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine protects against the most common strains of HPV that cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Sexually active adults with non-monogamous partners or those who have new sexual partners should be screened for STDs every year.
It’s recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, or as early as age 9, and up to age 26 if not already vaccinated. It’s not recommended for people older than 26, but certain individuals who are at high risk for new HPV infections should talk to their doctor about whether it would be beneficial. It’s also important to note that this vaccine prevents new HPV infections but does not treat existing infections or diseases.
“There is no question that the HPV vaccine is safe and that works. It reduces the incidence of cervical as well as head and neck cancers and does not lead to infertility problems, despite the false information that’s shared on social media,” says Dr. Meredith. “When given between the ages of 9 and 14, two doses are required. Individuals over the age of 15 will require three doses.”
Understanding Your Risk
Risk factors for cervical cancer include HPV infection, having multiple sexual partners or becoming sexually active younger than 18 years old, smoking, previous chlamydia infection, long-term oral contraceptives use and having a weakened immune system from HIV. Other risks include multiple full-term pregnancies or a full-term pregnancy before age 20. These women have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cervical cancer, treatment typically includes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, depending on the kind of cancer and its stage. Your outlook and survival are greatly improved when this or any cancer is found early, making routine screenings an important part of maintaining your overall health.
If you don’t have insurance or your insurance does not cover screening exams, the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program provides cervical cancer screenings and diagnostic services to uninsured and underinsured women. Click here for more information or to find a local or regional health department.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Meredith at CHI Memorial Pediatric Diagnostic Associates, please call 423.698.2299 (BABY).