By Dr. Carolyn Moyers, DO, FACOG
One question I hear from my patients often is, “Is there something I can do to keep from getting cervical cancer?” Thy answer is simple: Yes. There are two ways to stop cervical cancer from developing: 1) The first is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become actual cancers. 2) The second is to prevent pre-cancers altogether.
How do you do this? The best way is to have regular screening tests starting at age 21.
Stop cervical cancer before it starts with these two tests:
Cervical cancer is a potentially fatal disease but can be prevented by undergoing two simple screening tests to find pre-cancers before they turn into invasive cancer: the Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papilloma virus (HPV) test.
If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated and the cervical cancer can be stopped in its tracks. Most cases of cervical cancer are found in women who were either never screened or were not screened in the previous five years.
1) The Pap test: The Pap test (or Pap smear) is a procedure that collects cells from your cervix so they can be examined under a microscope for signs of pre-cancer or cancer. Cell changes on the cervix may become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately. These cells can also be used for HPV testing. A Pap test is usually done during your pelvic exam as part of your annual GYN checkup.
If your Pap test results are normal, your chances of getting cervical cancer in the next few years are very low. For that reason, your doctor may tell you that you do not need another Pap test for the next three years. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. If both test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years to have your next Pap test; however, you should still see your GYN every year for a checkup.
2) The HPV test: The human papilloma virus (HPV) test checks for the virus that can cause the cervical cell changes that can lead to cancer. HPV is a very common virus, passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin sexual contact, including vaginal, oral and anal sex. It is most common in people in their late teens and early 20s, and almost all sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never even know it.
Another way to prevent cervical cancer: The HPV Vaccine
HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women; penile cancer in men; anal cancer, cancer of the back of the throat (oropharynx) and genital warts in both men and women. Many of these cancers could be prevented with vaccination.
HPV vaccines can prevent infection from both high-risk HPV types that can lead to cervical cancer and low-risk types that cause genital warts.
The CDC recommends all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. The vaccine produces a stronger immune response during preteen years. For this reason only two doses are required up until age 14.
The vaccine is available for all males and females through age 45 but, for those 15 or older, a full three-dose series is needed.
Clinical trials have shown HPV vaccines provide close to 100% protection against cervical pre-cancers and genital warts.
NOTE: Even after you are vaccinated against HPV, you still need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.
Lowering your risk for cervical cancer:
In addition to regular Pap and HPV tests and getting the HPV vaccine, there are other things you can do to prevent pre-cancerous cells from developing:
- Don’t smoke.
- Use condoms during sex. (The HPV vaccine does not protect against other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) such as HIV, Chlamydia, and Gonorrhea).
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
If you are concerned about cervical cancer, please contact us.
If it has been awhile since you’ve had a Pap or HPV test or if you’ve never been tested, or if you would like to get the HPV vaccine, please contact us at HerKare to see one of our providers. We’re here for you.