Mostly affecting women between 30 and 65, cervical cancer prevention doesn’t receive much attention.
It is highly preventable because 99% of cases result from HPV (human papillomavirus), an extremely common sexually transmitted infection (STI), for which there is a safe and effective vaccine. Regular screeings and barriered sex are also very effective at stopping cervical cancer before it starts.
This means everyone can contribute to eliminating the threat of cervical cancer and any cancers caused by HPV, such as some mouth, throat, penis, and anal cancers.
What causes cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is an abnormal overgrowth of cells in the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.
Almost all cases of cervical cancer result from HPV, a common virus passed via skin-to-skin sexual contact. There are many strains of HPV, and many do not cause cancer; some cause genital warts or lesions instead. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active women, men, and nonbinary folks may get the virus at some point in their lives.
Many possible cancer-causing HPV strains do not cause noticeable symptoms at first, which is why vaccination and screenings are important.
What increases your risk of developing cervical cancer?
- Smoking tobacco
- High number of sexual partners
- Sexual activity at an early age
- Other sexually transmitted infections
- A weakened immune system
How important is regular screening in cervical cancer prevention?
Regular screening for HPV and cervical cancer is very important and well worth the appointment!
Even if you have been vaccinated against HPV and always use condoms during sex, you should still be tested regularly because vaccination doesn’t prevent 100% of infections.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life. It can take 3 to 7 years for changes in cervical cells to become cancer, so it is easy to catch changes early with regular screening.
Cervical cancer screening includes a Pap test, an HPV test, or both. Both tests use cells easily taken from the cervix with a tiny brush.
- Pap tests are used to find changes in cervical cells that could lead to cancer. This can be done as part of a physical exam by your PCP or during an OB/GYN exam. A Pap test is recommended every 3 years for 21 to 29-year-olds and every 5 years for 30 to 65-year-olds if the previous test was clear.
- HPV tests look for different strains of the HPV virus, many of which do not cause cancer but can cause warts or lesions and can be easily spread to sexual partners.
Even people who’ve had their uterus removed may still have an intact cervix and should get screened for cervical cancer.
Everyone has different risk factors, so talk to your primary care provider or gynecologist about how often you should get screened.
If you do not have insurance, the New Hampshire Breast and Cervical Program can help you access free cervical and breast screenings and diagnostic services.
How can boys and men also prevent cervical cancer?
Anyone can help prevent cervical cancer with vaccination against HPV and using barriers, such as condoms, during sex because they reduce the area of potentially infected skin touching. One study showed women whose partners always used condoms during sex were 70% less likely to become infected than those who only used condoms 5% of the time.
Please note that HPV can also cause cancer of the penis, throat, mouth, and other areas through sexual contact.
Many people get HPV and can spread it to others without knowing because it often lacks noticeable symptoms, and there is currently no approved blood test for HPV in men. While there is no treatment for HPV infection when no symptoms are present, the virus usually clears from males within 12 months.
Who can get the HPV vaccine, and is it safe?
The HPV vaccine is proven safe and effective and has been used widely for over 15 years. It is an extremely easy way to protect children against this common STI throughout their lives.
CDC recommends HPV vaccination at age 11 or 12 (or can start at age 9 years).
Vaccination is also recommended for teens and young adults (15 – 26 years) who are not vaccinated.
Unvaccinated adults between the ages of 27 and 45 years are encouraged to get the HPV vaccine after consulting with their medical provider about their risk for new HPV infections.
To get this vaccine, talk to your primary care provider.
What are the possible symptoms of cervical cancer?
- Vaginal bleeding after intercourse, between periods, or after menopause.
- Periods that are longer or heavier than usual.
- Bloody, watery discharge that may be heavy or with an odor.
- Pelvic pain during intercourse.
Most of these symptoms can also be indications of other problems, so make an appointment for a gynecological exam if you experience any of them. Almost every insurance company covers an annual gynecological exam with an OB/GYN provider for anyone with a vagina, in addition to appointments with your primary care provider.
Carlye Atkinson, MSN, CNM, a certified midwife who provides gynecological care at Cheshire Medical Center, says, “Many women have been told pain, discomfort, and inconvenience are their fate, and it's just not true. So please, come and see us. You do not have to suffer.”
Atkinson recently answered frequently asked questions about gynecological care.
How is cervical cancer treated?
Cervical cancer is usually first treated with surgery, then medicine to kill the cancer cells. Sometimes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both are part of a cervical cancer treatment plan with Dartmouth Cancer Center at Cheshire Medical Center.
How do I make an appointment to be screened?
An annual gynecological exam with an OB/GYN provider can include a Pap and HPV test, along with an in-depth discussion of many aspects of your pelvic and reproductive health. Make an appointment with Cheshire's OB/GYN team.
An annual physical with your primary care provider can include a Pap and HPV test, along with a physical assessment and a discussion of your overall health and goals. Make an appointment with one of Cheshire's Primary Care teams.