Since it’s Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we want to share some facts about cervical cancer, how to prevent it and what signs to be aware of for early detection. Cervical cancer is most prevalent among women over the age of 30. Although the number of new cases has steadily declined, cervical cancer is still the second most common type of cancer for women worldwide. By raising awareness about women’s cervical health, we can all work together and help women protect themselves from cervical cancer.
1. The #1 cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is a common virus that is passed from person to person during sex. It is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States. The CDC reports that 79 million Americans, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. There is no cure for HPV. Most people that carry the virus don’t even know that they have it because it usually causes no symptoms and will typically go away on its own. In fact, researchers estimate that most people will have carried the virus at some point throughout their life. Regular Pap tests are recommended for all women as the best protection against cervical cancer as they can detect any abnormalities related to HPV. There are many different types of HPV and only some types can cause changes to the cervix and eventually lead to cervical cancer.
2. Not all strains of HPV cause cancer.
Since HPV is a very common virus and many people carry it without ever knowing that they have it, there is only a small number of HPV strains that can develop into cervical cancer. If you have a Pap test and the results come back positive, don’t panic! There are over 150 types of HPV that live on the body but only a small number can cause problems by changing the cells from normal to abnormal. There are strains considered high-risk HPV and low-risk HPV. Simply carrying the high-risk strains of HPV doesn’t necessarily point to developing cancer. In order for cells infected with this strain to turn into cancer cells, there would need to be other triggers to cause growth. Your provider will review your test results with you and let you know a future course of action.
3. Risk factors for developing cervical cancer include HIV, smoking, and multiple sexual partners.
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. However, there are other factors that can increase your risk. These include having HIV (the virus that causes AIDs) or other conditions that weaken your body’s immune system, smoking, using birth control for a long time (over 5 years), having given birth to three or more children or having several sexual partners according to the CDC. Did you know that cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S.? An estimated 13,800 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year and about 4,290 women will die from it according to the American Cancer Society. Luckily, with modern testing and a push to educate the public about annual screenings and preventative measures, the rates of cervical cancer have dropped significantly in the last 40 years.
4. Cervical cancer can be difficult to diagnose early.
It can be difficult to diagnose cervical cancer without screenings because there are often no signs or symptoms in the beginning stages. At advanced stages, a person may experience bleeding or discharge that isn’t normal for them. This is why it is recommended that women receive routine Pap tests. They enable doctors to detect any abnormalities to take action before cervical cancer develops.
If you have been diagnosed with cervical cancer, your doctor may refer you to a gynecologic oncologist to do more testing and come up with a treatment plan. Depending on the kind of cervical cancer and the stage, your doctor may suggest surgery, chemotherapy or radiation as part of the treatment plan.
Early detection and prevention are your best defense against cervical cancer. When detected early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and the chances of a long survival and good quality of life are high.
5. Most cervical cancer is preventable.
Thankfully cervical cancer is the easiest type of gynecological cancer to screen for and prevent by annual screenings and a one-time vaccination. The simplest way to prevent cervical cancer is to protect yourself from contracting HPV by limiting sexual partners, using condoms and getting the HPV vaccination before you become sexually active (the recommended age for girls is between 18- 21 years old).
The most important step to take toward preventing cervical cancer is to begin regular screening tests at the age of 21. Two tests that you should get annually to prevent cervical cancer are the Pap test (or Pap smear) and the HPV test which detects changes in cells that may indicate cancer.
The HPV vaccine is also recommended for preteens and teens and protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. It can be given at any time but is encouraged before the age of 21 for maximum effectiveness. Adults ages 27 through 45 who haven’t been vaccinated may still do so, however, the vaccine does not treat the virus if a person has already been exposed to it.
More good news… the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) provides breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services to low-income, uninsured and underinsured women throughout the United States. Find out more here.
6. Genomics research has been a major contributor in diagnosing, preventing and treating cervical cancer as well as other types of cancers.
The National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) Center for Therapeutic Antibody Engineering (CTAE) focuses on targeted immunotherapy and treatments through engineered human antibodies. Dr. Wayne A. Marasco who is affiliated with the NFCR-CTAE has been successful in developing antibodies that can halt abnormal cell growth. Another type of medical research that continues to advance is tumor angiogenesis. In 2014, an anti-vascular endothelial cell growth factor (VEGF) antibody combined with chemotherapy was approved by the FDA to treat patients with persistent, recurrent or metastatic cervical cancer.
Thankfully, medical researchers continue to learn more about cancer genomics and apply the learned knowledge to prevent and treat those who have been diagnosed with various types of cancer including cervical cancer. However, with advancements in screening, vaccines and diagnostic testing, the number of cervical cases each year continues to decline. With awareness and education, cervical cancer could be one of the first types of cancers that can be almost completely preventable.
At Burdett Birth Center, women’s health is a top priority. Information presented in this blog post is for informational purposes only. If you want to know more about preventing or treating cervical cancer, we strongly recommend that you contact your healthcare provider. They can provide further information and guidance.