7 myths about cervical cancer

January 4, 2016 Providence Health Team

About 13,000 women in the U.S. get cervical cancer each year. Most of them are between ages 30 and 54, with the median age of 48. When caught early, the survival rate for cervical cancer is 91 percent. Thanks to all the available health screenings and vaccines, cervical cancer is highly detectable, treatable — and preventable. Read on to learn more about common misconceptions.

Myth #1: If you contract HPV, you will get cervical cancer

Truth: Not all strains of HPV (human papillomavirus) are linked to cervical cancer. HPV refers to a group of more than 100 related viruses that collectively make up the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. About 80 percent of sexually active people contract HPV at some point. However, most individuals will never know they got HPV because the body’s immune system fends off 70 to 90 percent of infections before showing any symptoms.

HPV 16 and 18 are high-risk strains linked to roughly 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. Low-risk strains, such as HPV 6 and 11, cause genital warts, which rarely develop into cancer.

Myth #2: Cervical cancer is not preventable

Truth: Providers can treat pre-cancer, essentially preventing cervical cancer before it starts. Cervical cancer begins as pre-cancerous cells that typically take years to evolve into cancer. A pap test, also known as a pap smear, is a screening that detects pre-cancerous cells.

Another exam is the HPV test, which identifies strains of the virus that put women at higher risk for cervical cancer. If HPV is found, you should get retested in a year to see if the virus has cleared. Providers can catch 90 percent of cervical cancer cases through pap smears and HPV tests.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the HPV vaccine for females between ages 11 and 26. There are two types of vaccines: Gardasil and Cervarix. Both help protect against cervical cancer. Women older than 26 can still get the vaccine, says David Ahdoot, M.D., a Providence OB-GYN in Southern California. However, the vaccine won’t be effective if you’ve already been exposed to the strains. But that holds true for anyone at any age. Also, some insurance plans won’t cover the vaccine after age 26.

Myth #3: Women need a pap test every year

Truth: Current research has found that annual pap tests are no longer necessary. The CDC and the American Cancer Society recommend a pap test every three years for women 21 and older. False positives are common with cervical cancer screenings. In turn, frequent screenings lead to more follow-up tests that may bring unwanted side effects and added costs.    

Many insurance plans cover pap smears. You may be eligible for a free or low-cost cervical cancer screening if:

  • You are between ages 21 and 64
  • You have no insurance or your insurance doesn’t cover it
  • Your annual income is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level

Myth #4: A pap test is the same as a pelvic exam

Truth: A pap test is different from a pelvic exam, which is a physical exam of the pelvis, vagina and pelvic floor (area encompassed by your hip bones). A well-woman visit may include any of the following: pap test, pelvic exam, breast exam and physical. You should still make a well-woman appointment every year even if you do not need a pap smear.

Myth #5: HPV is treatable.

Truth: There is no treatment for HPV. However, the immune system resolves most genital HPV infections typically within two years. Health care providers cannot treat HPV itself, but they can catch and treat pre-cancerous cells caused by HPV.

Myth #6: Cervical cancer typically shows immediate symptoms

Truth: Early pre-cancers and cervical cancers don’t usually produce symptoms you would notice. By the time cervical cancer has spread and reached an advanced stage, symptoms may include:

Thanks to all the available health screenings and vaccines, cervical cancer is highly detectable, treatable—and preventable. Talk with your provider if you experience any of these symptoms: abnormal vaginal bleeding' unusual discharge; pain during sex; pain in the back, leg or pelvis; a single, swollen leg; weight loss or loss of appetite; or fatigue.
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Unusual discharge
  • Pain during sex
  • Pain in back, leg or pelvis
  • A single swollen leg
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

Talk with your provider if you experience any of these symptoms, which may be caused by something other than cervical cancer.

Myth #7: If you’ve had a hysterectomy, you can’t get cervical cancer

Truth: If you’ve had a hysterectomy, you should continue getting screened for cervical cancer. However, if you’ve had a total hysterectomy, during which your cervix and uterus were removed, you should stop getting pap smears and HPV tests.

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