Top 9 Cervical Cancer Myths

Separate fact from fiction -- learn the truth behind the top myths about cervical cancer.

Myth: HPV is Uncommon

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Fact: HPV is extremely common. It is estimated that over 20 million people are infected with HPV in the U.S. In fact, it is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S.

Myth: Cervical Cancer Only Occurs in Developing Countries

FactCervical cancer is a disease that plagues women in all countries, developed or not. Cervical cancer is more prevalent in less developed countries due to the lack of adequate cervical cancer screening programs. The U.S. has seen a great decline in cervical cancer diagnoses over the last 20 years due to the Pap smear.

Myth: Mostly Promiscuous Women Get Cervical Cancer

Fact: Having many sexual partners over the course of a woman's lifetime is a risk factor for cervical cancer. However, women who have had only one partner can develop cervical cancer, also. No one can pinpoint exactly why one woman may develop cervical cancer and another may not. There are many factors in cervical cancer development.

Myth: If You Have HPV, You Will Develop Cervical Cancer

Fact: For most women with HPV, the virus goes away on its own without medical intervention and without causing cervical cancer. Aside from an untreated/unmonitored high-risk HPV infection, there are many factors that play a role in the development of cervical cancer. Having a regular cervical exam (Pap smear and other diagnostic tests) is vital in detecting abnormal cervical changes caused by HPV. The cervical exam can detect changes long before they progress to cervical cancer.

Myth: Cervical Cancer Cannot Be Prevented

Fact: Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. A highly effective means of cervical cancer prevention is regular Pap smear testing. A Pap smear is a screening test for cervical cancer. It is not a diagnostic test, so having the test done regularly is essential. A Pap smear identifies women who may be at high risk for having precancerous or cancerous cervical changes.

The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, also is a highly effective at preventing cervical cancer. The vaccine provides protection against high risk strains of HPV known to cause cervical cancer in women. The vaccine currently is FDA approved in women ages 9-26, with a target age of 11-12.

Myth: Condoms Provide 100% Protection Against HPV

Fact: Condoms do provide a limited amount of protection against the HPV, but not 100 percent protection. HPV is transmitted through sexual, skin-to-skin contact with an infected person; no penetration is needed to contract the virus. When a condom is worn, only the penis is protected. Other areas of the genitalia are left exposed and may come in contact with the vagina during intercourse.

An HPV study at the University of Washington found that condoms may prevent the transmission of HPV by up to 70%. Although they do not provide complete protection against HPV, it is still very important to practice safe sex to prevent unwanted pregnancy and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Myth: All Women Need an Annual Pap Smear to Screen for Cervical Cancer

Fact: While this used to be true, updated cervical cancer screening guidelines do not require all women to have a Pap smear yearly. Frequency of testing depends on age, previous test results, and when a woman becomes sexually active.

Myth: Older Women Don't Need Pap Smears

Fact: All women need to have a regular Pap smear until her doctor decides they are no longer necessary. This usually happens when a woman turns 65 and hasn't had an abnormal Pap smear within the last 10 years. If you are unsure of when you should stop getting regular Pap smears, talk to your doctor.

Myth: Women Who Have Had Gardasil Can Stop Getting Pap Smears

Fact:Regular Pap smears are still necessary for women who have had the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is intended to prevent HPV, not replace regular Pap smears. Gardasil protects against two strains of HPV known to cause cervical cancer in women, however there are other strains associated with cervical cancer and the vaccine will not protect you against these strains.

  1. "Human Papillomavirus and Genital Warts." 08/2006. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 9 Nov 2007 .

    Rachel L. Winer, Ph.D, James P. Hughes, Ph.D., Qinghua Feng, Ph.D., Sandra O'Reilly, B.S., "Condom Use and the Risk of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection in Young Women." New England Journal of Medicine 354:2645-265406/22/2006 11/9/07.

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