January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is a highly preventable cancer.
Cervical cancer doesn't have obvious symptoms. Unlike other forms of cancer, early cervical cancer and its precursors don't have physical symptoms that signal you might have the disease. But, once cervical cancer has advanced, warning signs start to appear.
When cervical cancer has grown into other structures, symptoms like abnormal bleeding between periods, pain or bleeding during intercourse, and abnormal discharge throughout the menstrual cycle may appear. A pap smear is your best tool for prevention.
A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease. There are several risk factors that may increase the chance of developing cervical cancer, including:
- Human papillomavirus infection
- Being overweight
- Having a family history of cervical cancer
To learn about these and other risks factors, click here.
You can guard against cancer-causing HPV with vaccines.
Gardasil and Cervarix are vaccines that protect girls and women ages nine to 26 from HPV linked to cervical cancer. Additionally, Gardasil can protect boys and men from genital warts, around 90 percent. Note that these vaccinations have a better immune response in adolescents, so that is why it's recommended all 11-12 year old girls and boys receive the two dose series.
While vaccines can protect against 70-80 percent of cervical cancers, you may still be at risk of getting another type of HPV. Vaccines reduce risk but don't eliminate it.
“The goal of the HPV vaccine is to inoculate patients who have not been previously exposed to the HPV virus, and that is the reason for giving it to preadolescents. The effectiveness of the vaccine diminishes in patients who have already been exposed to the virus,” said Dr. Donato. “Although protective against cervical cancer, the vaccine is not absolute, and that is why continued screening is still required.”
The American Cancer Society recommends that women follow these guidelines to help find cervical cancer early as well as finding pre-cancers:
- Women should start cervical cancer screening at age 21. Women 21 to 29 should have a Pap test every three years, and beginning at 30, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every 5 years, continuing to age 65. Another option for testing starting at 30 is to be tested every three years with just the Pap test.
- Women at high risk for cervical cancer may need to be screened more often and should consult with their health care provider.
- Women over 65 who have had regular screenings in the previous 10 years should stop cervical cancer screenings as long as they haven't had any serious pre-cancers found in the last 20 years.
For additional details on the American Cancer Society's screening guidelines, click here.
Interesting Facts and Resources
Nearly all cases of cervical cancer are caused by an infection with high-risk types of HPV or Human papillomavirus. The virus is linked to a total of six different cancers: cervical, vaginal, vulvar, penile, anal and throat.
The HPV vaccine can prevent at least 90% of HPV related cancers. The American Cancer Society recommends that boys and girls receive the vaccine when they are 11 to 12 years old.
For more information on HPV and the vaccine, click here.
The American Cancer Society says there were approximately 170 new cases of cervical cancer in Colorado in 2017 and an estimated 50 deaths.