This article was refreshed in January 2024 to reflect recent research and information.
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
- Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country.
- HPV vaccinations are recommended for adolescents at age 11 or 12, and can be given as early as age 9.
- Women should start screening for cervical cancer at age 21.
With the start of a new year, many of us vow to prioritize our health and well-being. While these goals are often centered around weight loss or stress reduction, it’s also important to prioritize your sexual and reproductive health.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. The Women’s Health team at Providence wants to encourage you to take charge of your sexual and reproductive health. You can do this by talking to your health care provider about the best ways to protect yourself against cervical cancer and other cervical health issues.
About cervical cancer
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.
Cervical cancer is almost always preventable, though, with regular health screenings and vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV). Still, the American Cancer Society states that each year, nearly 14,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,300 die due to this largely avoidable disease.
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 Papanicolaou test, commonly known as the Pap test, cut those numbers dramatically. Regular screenings that lead to earlier detection come with a better chance of successful cervical cancer treatment and a much higher survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.
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 College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP), and the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO) together to recommend the following guidelines for cervical cancer testing:
- Cervical cancer testing should start at age 21.
- Women should have a Pap test every three years between ages 21 and 30.
- If you are between the ages of 30 and 65, you should either have a Pap test every three years, a primary hrHPV test every five years (if you have a doctor who offers primary hrHPV testing), or co-testing (with both a Pap and a primary hrHPV test) every five 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 performed as treatment for cancer or serious pre-cancer.
- You should follow the screening guidelines even if you’ve been vaccinated against HPV.
It can be difficult to keep up with changing guidelines. Your gynecologist is aware of these recommendations, so just remember to schedule your yearly appointment and talk with your doctor about your cervical health and screenings while you’re there.
Protect yourself from cervical cancer
HPV vaccination (for example, GARDASIL 9) can prevent HPV infection, which is the virus that causes most cervical cancers, genital warts and pre-cancerous cells in the cervix. It’s given as a vaccine series of two or three doses, depending on your age when first vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) HPV vaccination recommendations:
- 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 for young adults through age 26.
- If you are 27 through 45 years old, talk to your doctor about whether you should be vaccinated.
- If you have an HPV infection or have been treated for precancerous conditions of the cervix, talk to your doctor about vaccination, because recent studies have shown a lower chance of recurrence if you get the vaccine.
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.
Spread the word about HPV vaccination
According to Diana Pearre, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Providence Specialty Medical Group in Burbank, California, medical professionals’ increased knowledge about how to prevent cervical cancer has helped them prevent HPV and catch it early.
“In general, cervical is a rare disease in the United States,” she said. “Now, HPV is more often leading to other kinds of cancers, such as oropharyngeal cancers in both men and women, which are cancers of the head and neck.”
There’s still plenty of work to do, however, to get the word out about HPV vaccination—particularly among those under 30 years of age. “If you are under 30, or if you know someone in that age group, urge them to get vaccinated,” Dr. Pearre said.
Diana Pearre, M.D., gynecologic oncologist at Providence Specialty Medical Group in Burbank, California
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care provider’s instructions.
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