According to the Centers for Disease Control, all women are at risk for cervical cancer – and approximately 12,000 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. HPV is common, it’s passed during sexual contact, and roughly half of all sexually active people will have HPV at some time in their lives.
There are two main ways to prevent cervical cancer – routine screening and the HPV vaccine.
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.
The HPV vaccine protects against the most common strains of HPV that cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. 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.
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 is greatly improved when found 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 find a physician in your area.