Simple Steps to Preventing Cervical Cancer

A Science-based Approach to Reducing Personal Risk

Woman waiting
What can you do to reduce your risk of getting cervical cancer?. Jamie Grill/Getty Images

While cervical cancer is one of the scariest medical conditions a woman can face, advances in screening and prevention have started to turn things around. Early detection has afforded us the means to catch the cancer while it is still treatable, while vaccines and other interventions are better preventing the development of the disease in the first place.

What Is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a potentially life-threatening malignancy involves the cervix.

The cervix is situated on the lowest part of the uterus (sometimes called the uterine cervix) and connects the upper part of the uterus with the vagina.

Cervical cancer was once one of the most common killers of women in the U.S. In recent years, numbers have dropped dramatically due in large part to the development of Pap smear technologies. Yet despite these advances, around 9,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, resulting in over 4,000 deaths.

While we don't still know the exact mechanisms that give rise to cervical cancer, we do know that several things can increase risk. Chief among them is the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection which is linked to virtually all cases of cervical cancer, as well as 95 percent of anal cancers.

Pap Screening: Your First Line of Defense

A Pap smear is one of the greatest, first-line defenses against cervical cancer.

These simple screening technologies can detect the majority of cervical changes associated with the development of cancer, allowing for earlier treatment when success rates are higher.

A Pap smear is typically recommended a minimum of every three years, or every five when combined with HPV testing. Recommendations can vary by age, based on guidelines from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG).

Abnormal Pap smears are common, which doesn’t mean that you have cancer or even a pre-cancerous condition. There can be many reasons for an abnormal reading, many of which have nothing to do with cancer at ll.  In the end, the test only detects for irregularities in the size, shape, and organization of cells of the cervix (a condition known as cervical dysplasia).

While this may suggest a problem, it may mean nothing. Speak with your doctor to get a better understanding of your test and the terminology of abnormal Pap smears..

If you've had dysplasia and have been treated, you will definitely need to be checked on a regular basis (in some cases with both a Pap smear and colposcopic exam).

HPV Vaccination: Your First Line of Prevention

If you are between the ages of nine and 26, you may want to seriously consider getting the HPV vaccine.

There are now three different forms of the vaccine that aim to prevent the variety of HPV strains associated with cancer. You do not need to be a virgin to get the shot. and you can even be immunized if you've had an HPV infection. Your insurance may be even cover the cost of vaccination, often as part of their preventive health benefits.

The current vaccine options include:

  • Gardisil, which protects against HPV strains 6, 11, 16, and 18.
  • Cervarix, which protects against HPV 16 and 18.
  • Gardisil 9, which protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

The vaccines aim to target those strains that pose to the greatest risk to the development of cancer. Of these, infection by HPV 16 and 19 represent around 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases (as well as high rates of anal, penile, and head and neck cancers). Another 20 percent are related to HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52, and 58.

Low-risk HPV strains do not typically cause cancer but may lead to the development of genital warts.

HPV 6 and 11 are the two strains most associated with this condition.

Other Ways to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Ultimately, it takes more than Pap smears and HPV vaccination to prevent cervical cancer. Some require changes in sexual habit to lifestyle choices that confer not only to lower risk but better health:

  • An informed prevention strategy starts with the reduction in the number of sex partners you have. By lowering the number – and ensuring you use condoms consistently – you reduce the likelihood of HPV exposure. While condoms are not a fool-proof means of preventing  HPV, they do provide an added barrier of protection. Only abstinence can promise more.
     
  • The benefits of quitting smoking are huge, not least of which is the reduction in cervical cancer risk. In women with an HPV 16 infection, smoking is associated with a 14-fold increase in cervical cancer risk versus women with no HPV infection. Smoking appears to dramatically accelerate cervical dysplasia, while depleting a person's overall immune response.

A Word From Verywell

Cervical cancer today is a very different disease than what it was just 20 years ago. We now have the means to dramatically reduce personal risk and to ensure early detection of the disease before it become a serious health concern.

By taking an holistic approach to prevention – which includes Pap screening, HPV vaccination, safer sex practices, and smoking cessation – you can dramatically reduce cervical cancer risk for not only yourself but the next generation of young girls and women. The tools for prevention are in your hand.

Source:

National Cancer Institute. “Cervical Cancer Treatment (PDQ) – Health Professional Version.” National Institutes of Health; Bethesda, Maryland.

Continue Reading