January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, so we’re taking the time to discuss a few easy things you can do to take charge of your cervical health, and to spread awareness about what you can do to prevent cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is cancer that results from abnormal cell growth in the cervix, which is the lower and narrow end of the uterus. The cervix connects the vagina to the upper part of the uterus, where the baby develops during pregnancy.
Nearly 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year. Thankfully, cervical cancer highly preventable and treatable. Up to 93% of cervical cancers are preventable, making it the easiest gynecological cancer to prevent.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, which is more commonly known as HPV.
HPV is a virus that is transmitted through sexual skin-to-skin contact and is usually transmitted through vaginal or anal sex. HPV is a group of more than 150 viruses, of which at least 13 cause cervical cancer. Some cause genital warts, but the majority are asymptomatic. Most Americans will be infected by a form of HPV during their lifetime, but 9 out of 10 cases of HPV will never show symptoms and will go away by themselves within 2 years. Most people never know that they have been infected, and may give HPV to a sex partner without knowing or realizing it.
What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?
According to the CDC, early-stage cervical cancer often shows no signs or symptoms. When the cancer advances to a late stage, one may experience bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is abnormal, such as bleeding after sex.
How can cervical cancer be prevented?
Because symptoms of cervical cancer don’t usually appear until the cancer has advanced, it is important to get regular screenings to detect abnormal cell growth. When found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and there is a high rate of survival. Regular screenings are extremely important, as more than 50% of all new cervical cancers are in women who have never been screened or have not been screened in the previous 5 years of their lives. Two main tests to receive regularly to help prevent cervical cancer: the PAP test and the HPV test.
The PAP test (also known as a PAP smear) screens for cervical cancer, and is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. This test recommended for all women 21-65 years old, and many medical practitioners will recommend that you receive one every 5 years. A PAP test screens for cervical cell changes, and when it finds abnormal cells in the cervix, the cells can easily be removed before cancer develops.
For women over 25, it is recommended to get regular screenings for HPV. If you are 30 years old or older, you can opt to have an HPV test along with the Pap test, and the tests will be performed by your doctor at the same time. An HPV test can determine if a woman has one of the “high risk” HPV strains, which are responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers worldwide. This screening can give doctors insight into your risk of developing cervical cancer.
The HPV Vaccination
In addition to regular screenings, one of the best ways to prevent against cervical cancer is to receive the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, which includes preteen males as well as females. The vaccine can be given as young as age 9 and can be administered until age 26 for women, and for young men through age 21. For the HPV vaccine to be most effective, the series should be given prior to exposure to HPV, and preteens should receive the recommended doses of the vaccine long before beginning any type of sexual activity.
For those that did not receive the HPV vaccine when they were younger, the HPV vaccine is also recommended for the following types of people:
- young men who have sex with men, including young men who identify as gay or bisexual or who intend to have sex with men through age 26
- young adults who are transgender through age 26; and
- young adults with certain immunocompromising conditions (including HIV) through age 26
Is the HPV vaccine effective and safe?
According to the CDC, “HPV vaccines provide close to 100% protection against cervical precancers and genital warts. Since the first HPV vaccine was recommended in 2006, there has been a 64% reduction in vaccine-type HPV infections among teen girls in the United States.” HPV vaccines offer long-lasting protection against HPV, and the vaccine does not lose its ability to protect over time. There is no difference in the level of effectiveness across ethnic and racial groups.
Research from both before and after the vaccines were licensed shows that HPV vaccines are not just effective, but also very safe. As with any vaccine, one may experience some common side effects from it. While the majority of people don’t experience any side effects at all, but for those that do, the most common side effects are pain, redness, or swelling in the arm where the shot was given; dizziness, fainting, nausea, and headache.
What else can you do to promote cervical health?
In addition to receiving regular screenings, there are other things you can do at any age to promote optimum cervical health. It is important to practice safe sex with your partners, and to use condoms in order to prevent the spread of HPV. You should also refrain from smoking, which increases your risk of cervical cancer and your risk of contracting a high-risk HPV strain. Finally, make sure you are practicing healthy practices that boost your immunity, such as getting adequate sleep, staying physically active, and eating a balanced diet full of whole foods. The stronger your immune system, the easier it will be to clear HPV from your body when it is contracted.
If you want to consult with a doctor about any questions you may have about your cervical health, you can do so now by clicking here. Our network of 108,000 doctors is available for you anytime, anywhere, via any device.
Author: Maggie Harriman