Cervical Cancer and HPV: What You Should Know

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, and the American Cancer Society estimates that 11,270 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed and about 4,070 women will die from it here in the United States.

The number of deaths caused by cervical cancer has declined significantly mostly because of the use of the Pap test (Pap smear). However, the disease still remains a serious threat especially in African American, Hispanic and Asian women as well as in women who are low income and have no insurance. Cervical cancer is easy to prevent and highly curable when detected and treated early.

What is cervical cancer? Cervical cancer is cancer that starts in the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus or the womb. Usually the cancer grows slowly and many women do not know they have the disease because they do no have any symptoms.

The main cause of the disease is a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sex and causes changes in the cervix. Almost 99% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Most HPV infections do not have symptoms and most people do not even know they are infected. Majority of the time, HPV infections clear up on its’ own and do not cause cancer. However, if the infection does not go away, it can cause the normal cells in the cervix to become precancerous. Pre-cancer cells do not always turn into cancer and most will return to normal. If they are not found and treated, the precancer cells may turn into cancer.

The only way to fully prevent HPV infection is through abstaining from sexual activity. Another way to prevent infection is through the HPV vaccine, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006. The vaccine protects against HPV types 16 and 18, the two types that cause 70% of cervical cancer. The vaccine is recommended for girls and women ages 11 to 26. The American Cancer Society recommends that women talk to their doctor about whether the vaccine is right for them.

All women are at risk for cervical cancer. There are certain risk factors that increase a woman’s chance of getting the disease. In addition to HPV infection, other risk factors include smoking, having HIV or any disease that affects the body’s immune system, Chlamydia infection, and long-term use of birth control. Having multiple sexual partners and having sex at an early age may also increase the chances of getting cervical cancer. Early detection is the key to preventing and treating cervical cancer. Cervical cancer screening using the Pap test is the most effective and reliable form of prevention. Getting regular Pap tests can save your life. The Pap test locates pre-cancer and abnormal cells that may become cancerous if not found early and left untreated. The HPV test can also be used to find change in the cells in the cervix.

Some simple guidelines for cervical cancer screening by the American Cancer Society are as follows: All women should begin getting annual Pap tests about 3 years after they become sexually active but no later than age 21; starting at age 30, women who have had normal Pap tests 3 years in a row should get screened every 2-3 years; women 70 years or older who have had normal Pap tests at least 3 years in a row and no abnormal tests in the last 10 years can stop being screened; however, you should talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional to determine how often you should have a Pap test.

For more information on cervical cancer, Pap tests, HPV and free or low-cost screening in your community, visit www.cancer.org or call 1-800-227 -2345.

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