Talking about your sex life and STIs can be uncomfortable, but avoiding these vital conversations is what's leading to an increase in cervical cancer occurrences. In honor of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, we want to talk about what you can do to prevent cervical cancer before it's too late.
If you are or have been sexually active in the past, then chances are you have been or will be exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in your life. You probably won't even realize it because there are no symptoms associated with an HPV infection, which is what makes it dangerous to your health.
HPV is a virus (different from HIV and the herpes virus) that is common enough that nearly all sexually active women and men get HPV at least once in their life. There are over 100 different types of HPV virus. The majority of HPV infections will spontaneously clear and show no symptoms, while others will cause warts or worse cervical cancer. HPV subtypes 16 and 18 are known to cause 70 percent of all cervical cancer. The less common HP subtypes that can cause cervical cancer also include: 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 68, 73, and 82.
Cervical cancer occurs at the cervix, which is the entrance to the womb or uterus. In cervical cancer, there is abnormal growth of cells on the cervix. Normally, cells have their own life span after which they die and are then replaced by new cells. However, abnormal cells (cancer cells) experience uncontrolled division and do not die. The result is that a tumor forms due to the accumulation of cells and the tumor is cancerous. Some of the symptoms of cervical cancer are bleeding between periods, after sexual intercourse, and in post-menopausal women. Other symptoms include smelly vaginal discharge, vaginal discharge with tinged blood, uneasiness during sexual intercourse, and pelvic pain.
Causes of Cervical Cancer
The risk of cervical cancer can also increase due to the following factors:
- Becoming sexually active at an early age
- Having multiple sexual partners
- High levels of stress
- Weakened immune system
- Sexually transmitted infections (STI)
- Taking contraceptive pills
- Having children at a young age
- Socioeconomic status
- Multiple pregnancies
How to Prevent Cervical Cancer
The stats don't lie. HPV is found in 99 percent of all cervical cancers, which is why preventive tests are vital to your health. Pap smears can detect abnormal cells, and they can be removed by your doctor before they develop into cancer.
Prevention is always better than treatment, and cervical cancer is most treatable when it is diagnosed early. Approximately 4,000 of women diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States die every year, and many of these deaths could have been prevented if the victims regularly got a Pap smear and HPV testing.
Vaccines that protect against infection with these types of HPV can greatly reduce the risk of cervical cancer; however, HPV-vaccinated women still require cervical screening as the HPV vaccine does not protect against all the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Quadrivalent HPV vaccine (6, 11, 16, 18) is 98 percent effective in preventing cancer. This vaccine is recommended in girls 12 years old or younger or before exposure to HPV, which leaves all the women who have been sexually active with only one option: Pap smear and HPV testing.
Screening for cervical cancer should start as early as 21 years of age, or three years after your first intercourse, and be conducted until the age of 65 years, when cytology is negative in three consecutive tests. The good news is if your pap is normal, then you only need to have this done every three years. One of benefits of being tested for HPV is that you can get cervical cancer testing even less often. If you are over the age of 30 years and have never had a diagnosis of HPV infection, then you can have the cervical screening every five years. This is based on research finding that if your pap and HPV test results are normal then you have almost no chance of getting cervical cancer within at least five years.
Start 2017 off right and if you haven't made your appointment yet for a cervical screening, call your doctor today! One simple step could help detect cervical cancer in its early stages and save your life.