This article was refreshed in January 2022 to reflect recent research and information.
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Cervical Health Awareness Month raises awareness about sexual and reproductive health and the steps you can take to guard against cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is virtually preventable with health screenings and vaccination against HPV.
Recent studies have connected the HPV vaccine’s availability with lower rates of cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is almost always preventable with appropriate health screenings and vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV). And yet, nearly 14,500 women in the U.S. are diagnosed every year, and more than 4,200 die due to this largely avoidable disease, according to the American Cancer Society.
Cervical cancer begins in a woman’s cervix – a narrow cylinder at the bottom of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Statistics show HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. It’s spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact. In most cases, HPV infection clears up on its own. When it lingers, HPV can cause health concerns like genital warts or cervical cancer.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Women’s health advocates are taking the opportunity to remind women to take charge of their sexual and reproductive health by talking to their doctors about the best ways to protect their cervical health and avoid cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer screening
Not that long ago, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of death for women in America. The introduction of the Pap smear cut those numbers dramatically. Regular screenings that lead to earlier detection come with a better chance of successful cervical cancer treatment.
Two main tests screen for cervical health issues:
- The Pap test looks at cells taken from the cervix to detect abnormalities that may become cancerous if left untreated.
- The HPV test identifies whether the HPV virus is present in the body.
The American Cancer Society provides women with recommendations to guide their decisions and help determine how to best safeguard their health.
New screening guidelines
In 2020, the American Cancer Society updated its guidelines for the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. The new guidelines start screenings at an older age and replace the Pap smear with HPV testing.
The new guidelines state:
- Cervical cancer testing should start at age 25 instead of 21, as was suggested previously.
- If you’re between 25 and 65, you should have a primary HPV test every five years.
- If primary HPV testing is not available to you, screening should include a co-test that combines an HPV test with a Pap test every five years or a Pap test alone every three years.
- If you’ve had a hysterectomy in which your uterus and cervix were removed, you can stop both Pap and HPV testing unless the procedure was done as a cancer treatment for cancer or serious pre-cancer.
- You should follow the screening guidelines even if you’ve been vaccinated against HPV.
Your gynecologist is aware of these updates, so you don’t have to remember them, but be sure to go to a yearly appointment and talk about your cervical health while you’re there.
Protect yourself from cervical cancer
HPV vaccination (also called GARDASIL 9) offers protection for your sexual and reproductive health by preventing cervical cancer. Much like other vaccines, the GARDASIL 9 vaccine stops diseases caused by bacteria and viruses by prompting your immune system to respond. It’s given as a series of two or three doses, depending on your age when first vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines:
- HPV vaccines are recommended at age 11 or 12 and may be given as early as age 9 for both boys and girls.
- If not done earlier, vaccination is recommended through age 26.
- If you are 27 through 45 years old, talk to your doctor about whether you should be vaccinated.
The HPV vaccine dosing works best if it’s given before you are exposed to the HPV virus. It prevents new infections but does not treat any that are already present when your vaccination takes place.
HPV vaccine research
A study published in 2021 found that the availability of the HPV vaccine relates to fewer cervical cancer cases in young women. The study compared the number of deaths from cervical cancer in women from 2001-2005 (before the HPV vaccine was available) to 2010-2017 (after the HPV vaccine was available). They found that cervical cancer deaths decreased by 43% in females who were able to get the vaccine. And the total number of cervical cancer cases dropped by 38%.
Another study also found that since the introduction of the HPV vaccine, rates of cervical cancer have dropped for women ages 15-20.
Researchers believe that the number of cervical cancer cases will continue to go down as more young people get the HPV vaccine. It’s important to get the vaccine before someone is exposed to HPV, which is why the CDC recommends getting your kids vaccinated as early as age 9.
Do your research
The saying, “knowledge is power,” may be a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Empower yourself and talk to your doctor about your sexual health when discussing your physical health. The two are often intertwined.
If just the thought of talking to your doctor about your sexual health makes you squirm, you are not alone. It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable to speak honestly and openly about your body, and you may not know where to begin. It can be even more difficult to discuss topics like this with your child’s pediatrician – especially if your child is in the room. Rest assured, physicians are well-versed in this area and can help you address this subject in a discreet way.
The American Sexual Health Association has several resources. Here are some questions to get the conversation started about your sexual health:
- What steps should I be taking to protect myself from sexually transmitted infections?
- How can I talk to my partner about sexually transmitted infections?
- I want my partner and me to get tested before we begin a sexual relationship. How do I bring up the subject? Where do we go for testing?
- Now that I’ve outlined my sexual history, do you think I need testing to determine if I have a sexually transmitted infection?
- How frequently should I be tested?
- Are there any vaccines I should consider?
- What are my birth control options?
The idea of talking about your body may be new to you. Still, it can make an invaluable difference in your sexual health. Find a doctor you can trust and take the first step in taking control.
Find a doctor
The team of Obstetricians and Gynecologists at Providence listens without judgment and offers compassionate, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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