6 Ways to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Simple Ways To Reduce Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

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

We hear a lot about cancer prevention, and cervical cancer is one of the cancers which is most preventable. What can you do to lower your risk?

What is Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer is a cancer (malignancy) that involves the cervix. The cervix is lowest part of the uterus (sometimes called the uterine cervix) which connects the upper part of the uterus with the vagina.

While cervical cancer was once one of the most common cancer killers in women, it is now much less common thanks to the development of Pap smear techniques.

There are currently around 9,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer each year and around 4,000 deaths. (This is compared to around 40,000 deaths each year from breast cancer.)

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

We don't know exactly what causes cervical cancer, but we do know of several things that increase your risk of developing the disease.

How to Reduce Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

Learning about cervical cancer can be frightening, especially now with the TV commercials blaring its presence in the world, but there is much you can do yourself to decrease your risk. And, even if you have risk factors, there is more you can do in order to find these cancers in the precancerous and early stages.

Looking at studies of people with newly diagnosed cervical cancer, many of these have occurred in people who have not had regular medical care and Pap smears. On the same token, the advent of Pap smears greatly reduced the number of women in the United States who have to hear those words, "You have cervical cancer."

Unfortunately, some people still do develop the disease. Let's talk about what you can do to reduce your risk by reducing your possible risk factors for cervical cancer and making sure you follow screening guidelines.

Get a Regular Pap Smear

A Pap smear is your single greatest defense against cervical cancer (other than possibly abstinence which is a bit extreme and women who have never had sex can still get cervical cancer.) Pap smears can detect the majority of cervical changes early on that can lead to cancer, and subsequent treatment can often prevent these changes from turning into cancer.

Make sure to learn about the current screening guidelines for cervical cancer. Most often a Pap smear is recommended a minimum of every three years, or a minimum of every five when combined with human papilloma (HPV) testing, but it's important to look carefully at the specific recommendations for your age.

It's also important to note that screening guidelines were adopted as a way of screening the "average" person on a population level. Your doctor may recommend screening more or less often in your particular situation or with your particular risk factors. Follow your doctors recommendation over any guidelines for the public in general.

Limit Your Number of Sexual Partners

The risk of developing cervical cancer is directly related to the number of sexual partners a woman has had. It's important to note that this is not due to the amount of sex a woman has had, but to the chances that she has been exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV.)

If You Smoke, Quit, and Avoid Secondhand Smoke

If you think of smoking, you may think of lung cancer, but there are many cancers that are associated with smoking.

Cervical cancer is one of these.

If you have an HPV infection, this is extra important. HPV infection has been shown to accelerate cervical dysplasia.

Studies are limited, but it's thought that secondhand smoke may cause similar problems. Kick the habit if your smoke, and ask your friends who smoke not to smoke around you.

If You are Sexually Active, Use a Condom

Unprotected sex not only increases your chance of becoming pregnant, but raises your risk of a host of sexually transmitted infections.

While condoms will not eliminate your risk of HPV (and hence, exposure to the most common cause of cervical cancer) they will decrease your risk greatly. Yet, just as many people have accidentally become pregnant while using condoms, bacteria and viruses can sometimes find a way through even more easily than sperm. Check out this important (but surprisingly often ignored) information on how to use a condom properly and prevent failure.

Follow Up on Abnormal Pap Smears

Abnormal Pap smear are common, and it can be easy to become complacent knowing how common they are. Yet Pap smears are done to detect the changes that can lead to cervical cancer and abnormal Pap smears always need to be followed up—even if that only means a Pap smear in a year.

If you've had dysplasia and it's been treated, keep in mind that it can recur. A way to think about this is that whatever caused you to have abnormal cells in your cervix in the first place could cause the problem again. If you've had dysplasia that's been treated you will still need to follow up with Pap smears or in some cases, colposcopies.

There are many reasons a Pap smear can be abnormal, only some of which raise your risk of developing cancer. If you've had an abnormal Pap, ask your doctor to explain exactly what it means and to explain the terminology of abnormal Pap smears. For example, were you told that you had an ASCUS Pap, or another findings such as AGS, HSIL or LSIL? The term dysplasia includes a wide array of different levels of abnormalities and doesn't say much about your risk in general.

Get the HPV Vaccine

If your are aged 26 or younger and over the age of nine, you should strongly consider getting the HPV vaccine.

There are now three different forms of the vaccine. As an answer to some questions, you do not need to be a virgin to get the shot. and since there are several different strains of HPV which can lead to cancer, the shot may still help you prevent cancer even if you've had an HPV infection.

Some women have delayed getting the shot, not knowing which of the three vaccines to receive. Sometimes that decision is easy, or rather, if you want to have your insurance cover the vaccine it is easy. Your insurance may cover one form of the vaccine and not another. So that you need delay no more, the vaccines are as follows.

  • Gardisil - Gardisil was the first shot approved for HPV (in 2006) - It offers protection against HPV 6, 11, 16, and 18.
  • Cervarix - Cervarix was the second vaccine approved (in 2009) - It offers protection against HPV 16 and 18.
  • Gardisil 9 - Gardisil 9 was approved in 2014 - It offers protection against strains 6, 11, 16, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

Now that you know which strains are covered by these different shots, let's talk about what these strains mean. There are literally dozens of different strains of HPV out there.

  • High risk strains of HPV are those that may lead to cervical cancer (they are also called the cancer causing strains.) Of these, HPV 16 and HPV 18 cause around 70 percent of cervical cancers, as well as other types of cancer such as head and neck cancers and penile cancer. Another 20 percent of cancers of the cervix are related to HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52, and 58. So, Gardisil or Cervarix can prevent 70 of cervical cancer related HPV infections and Gardisil 9, 90 percent.
  • Low risk strains of HPV - Low risk strains do not cause cancer but may lead to genital warts. Around 90 percent of genital warts are caused by HPV 6 and 11.

Other Ways to Lower Your Risk

Keep in mind that cervical cancer is similar to many other cancers in that a healthy diet and a good exercise regime are linked with a lower risk of the disease.

Bottom Line on Preventing Cervical Cancer

Take some time to learn more about cervical cancer and the risk factors for the disease. Try to reduce any risk factors for the disease that you have. And, if you are in the right age group, make sure to get the HPV vaccine. Oh, and if you've never learned exactly how to apply a condom, return to the section above on condoms and read more about how to do this and prevent failures.

Sources:

National Cancer Institute. Cervical Cancer Treatment (PDQ) – Health Professional Version. Updated 02/04/16. https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/hp/cervical-treatment-pdq

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