Get the info on cancer prevention: HPV Causes Most Cervical Cancer

A virus, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), causes most cervical cancers. There are many different types of HPV but only a few of them cause cancer.

HPV is easily spread through skin-to-skin sexual contact with someone who has the virus. It’s so common that most adults have been infected with it at some point in their lives.

HPV doesn’t always result in cervical cancer—some forms cause genital warts and others cause no symptoms at all. In many cases, an HPV infection will go away on its own without any treatment. The body’s immune system launches an attack against the virus and wins the battle. However, in some cases the virus wins and will eventually lead to abnormal cell growth and cervical cancer.

Feel like you can skip a Pap test now and then? What you don’t know about cervical cancer can be damaging to your ability to have children as well as deadly to your health.

Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in women in their 20s and 30s . Each year 11,000 new cervical cancer cases are diagnosed and 4,000 American women die from what’s considered to be the first preventable cancer.

These 11,000 women undergo treatments that put them at later risk for preterm birth during pregnancy, and may prevent them from ever carrying a baby if the cancer is advanced enough and it’s necessary to remove the uterus to treat it.

Avoiding Cervical Cancer

Virtually all cervical cancer begins as a genital HPV infection. HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact during sex and is extremely common. There are many types of HPV, some cause genital warts and others infect the cervix. Only the high-risk types can cause cellular changes that can turn into cancer.

Since 2006, we’ve been able to prevent the types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancers via vaccination. Vaccination is recommended for girls and women ages 11 to 26; it’s most effective when you get vaccinated before you’re sexually active.

HPV infections come and go without any symptoms. But when HPV remains it can create changes in your cells that a Pap test may show are pre-cancerous. If such cells are found, your health care provider can then remove the abnormal cells before cancer can develop.

If you don’t regularly get a Pap test, you’re putting yourself at risk for cervical cancer. Your best opportunity for preventing cervical cancer from ever developing is to get the HPV vaccine before you’re sexually active, and then begin regular Pap testing at age 21 as advised in 2016 by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

From age 30 to age 65, ACOG recommends a Pap plus HPV screening every 5 years. It’s also acceptable to have a Pap every 3 years, although experts prefer the dual Pap plus HPV screening.

Don’t take a chance with your future ability to carry a baby to term. And don’t take a chance with your life. Get regular Pap and HPV tests as appropriate. Tell your girlfriends and female relatives to do the same, and together let’s end cervical cancer.

When to Get Checked for Cervical Cancer

Annual well-woman visits that include a breast exam, sexually transmitted infection test and external genital exam are important at all ages. The Pap and HPV testing guidelines have changed recently, causing some confusion. Part of this confusion comes because HPV screening is typically done with your Pap test. When these 2 tests are done together, you can be screened less often. 

Current Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations:

Age 20 or younger No screening required
21-29 Pap test alone every 3 years; no HPV screening
30-65 Pap test every 3 years, or a Pap test and HPV test together every 5 years
66 or older Screening is no longer required if you’ve had 3 normal Pap tests or 2 normal HPV tests in a row

Source: CDC

Shot Against Cancer

When it comes to preventing cancer, 2 vaccines—Gardasil and Cervarix—protect against HPV and are recommended for use in adolescent girls at age 11 or 12, says the CDC, which also recommends that at those ages. HPV vaccination is also recommended for girls and women ages 13-26 who have not yet been vaccinated. Gardasil is also recommended for adolescent boys to protect against anal, penile, throat and mouth cancers, and genital warts.

The vaccines work best if administered between the ages of 9 and 15, and before sexual activity begins. Ideally, both boys and girls need 2 separate injections across a 6-month timeframe. If every boy and girl were vaccinated, cervical cancer could become a thing of the past!



Rita Nutt, DNP, RN, is an assistant professor of nursing at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD.

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