Years ago in a former job as a medical policy researcher, a drug company came to visit my employer to talk about a groundbreaking vaccine to prevent HPV. If people are protected from the HPV virus that is so common, eventually we could help rid the world of cervical cancer. I know I was pretty blown away.
The HPV virus has affected almost everyone that has ever had sex. It’s just that common, and usually pretty benign. You get it, you might not even know it, and it goes away. But sometimes the infection causes changes in cervical cells and you’ll get a slow-growing cancer.
Remember when you were told to have a Pap test every year? Updated American Cancer Society guidelines now recommend women to have a Pap test every three years from ages 21 to 29. From ages 30 to 65, a Pap test and HPV test is recommended every five years. A Pap test alone every three years is also OK for this age group. You would still need to follow these recommendations even if you’ve had the HPV vaccine since the vaccine only lowers but doesn’t eliminate the risk of getting cervical cancer later in life.
The American Cancer Society recommends that all females aged 11 to 12 years old should have the three-dose HPV vaccine series in order lower chances of ever getting the HPV virus that leads to cervical cancer.
So, we have less screening and a vaccine to help eliminate the risk of any daughter, mother, aunty or other loved one from suffering from this cancer. Yet, we still have women being treated and dying from cervical cancer. Why is this?
According to research, parents and doctors aren’t being diligent enough about recommending the HPV vaccine for children, so the virus continues to infect many. Talk to your doctor about when your child is due for their HPV vaccine.
Also, women are not getting screened even though the recommendations have softened.
Why should I have a Pap smear and HPV test?
Over the past 30 years, the cervical death rate has gone down dramatically by more than 50 percent! Largely, that is due to the Pap test. Still, estimates for 2015 were that 12,900 new cases will be diagnosed and approximately 4,100 women will die from cervical cancer.
If found early, cervical cancer can be cured and these cancers rarely occur in women who have been getting regular screening tests before they were 65.
What are the signs that I may have cervical cancer?
Usually early cervical cancer has no symptoms. Once the cancer has advanced, some of the following may occur, see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms since it may also be an infection. Either way, you should see your doctor for treatment.
• Abnormal vaginal bleeding, for example bleeding after sex, after menopause, between periods, or having longer or heavier periods, after douching, or after a pelvic exam.
• An unusual discharge, for example the discharge may contain some blood and happen between periods or after menopause.
• Pain during sex.
What puts women at risk?
• Infection from the Human papilloma virus (HPV). A fairly common virus that most people have had in their lifetime. Sometimes the infection can cause cellular changes that lead to cervical cancer. Catching those changes can be one way to prevent cancer and the HPV vaccine may also provide protection as two-thirds of all cervical cancers are caused by two strains of the virus, HPV 16 and 18.
• Smoking. If you’re a woman that smokes, you are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.
• Immunosuppression. Women who have an autoimmune disease and are taking drugs to suppress their immune system, women who have an organ transplant, or women with HIV are at higher risk since their bodies do not fight the HPV infection as well as others.
• Chlamydia infection. Women who had a past or current chlamydia infection are at higher risk than women who have had normal results.
• A diet low in fruits and vegetables. One thing well within your control is your diet. Knowing you could help your overall risk of most cancers by just eating healthier food is extra motivation.
• Being overweight. If you’re overweight, you are at higher risk of developing adenocarcinoma of the cervix.
• Long-term use of birth control pills. In one clinical study, it found that women who took birth control pills for over five years had double the risk, but that risk returned to normal when tested 10 years after stopping the birth control.
• Having multiple full-term pregnancies. No one is sure why this increases risk, it maybe because of hormonal changes that increase the rate of HPV infection and cancer growth.
• Being younger than 17 at your first full-term pregnancy. Your risk doubles compared to women who waited until they were 25 or older to get pregnant.
• Poverty. Women without access to good screening services like regular Pap tests are at risk of not getting pre-cancers treated.
• If your mother took Diethylstilbestrol (DES). If your mom took the DES drug to prevent a miscarriage (which women were given from 1940 to 1971), then you may be at increased risk of cervical cancer.
• Having a family history of cervical cancer. Your risk is two to three times higher if your mom or sister had cervical cancer compared to those with no family history.
To view a video of a woman who died of cervical cancer caused by HPV but inspired others to get free screenings that saved lives, see LadyGanga.org.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. For more information on cervical cancer and HPV, see the American Cancer Society guidelines for patients.