January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month as well as HPV Awareness Month, which is no coincidence. Cervical cancer is a slow developing form of cancer in the cervical tissue. Specific types of human papillomavirus (HPV) that are transmitted through sexual contact are the cause of almost all cervical cancers.
HPV is more common than people may think, 80 percent of those who are sexually active are infected with HPV at some point in their lives. However, most people never know they have the virus. HPV is unique in that the immune system of the majority of people who develop the virus clear it from the system without treatment or lingering problems, and ultimately will test negative for the virus.
Still, it is estimated that more than 12,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015.
Can HPV vaccines reduce the risk of getting cervical cancer?
Yes. Two vaccines, Gardasil® and Cervarix®, have been developed and approved for women and girls ages 9 to 26, to prevent the types of HPV linked to cervical cancer. It is important to note that both of these vaccines help prevent infection by HPV-16 and HPV-18, which cause 70% of all cervical cancers. The vaccines do not eliminate the risk for HPV.
Gardasil® is also approved for males 26 and younger to vaccinate them against the types of HPV linked to health issues in men.
How do I know if I have HPV? Or cervical cancer?
Screening for cervical cancer is crucial for women. The 5-year survival rate for cervical cancer when detected early can be higher than 90% .
The Pap test (or Pap smear) is the primary screening test for cervical cancer. This test is different from a pelvic exam, which includes an examination of a woman’s reproductive organs, including the uterus and the ovaries. A Pap test is a procedure used to collect cells from the cervix for examination under a microscope to find cancerous cells, pre-cancerous cells that could develop into cancer if left untreated, or other abnormalities such as inflammation and infection. Read more information on how a Pap test is conducted.
HPV tests take a sample of cells and look specifically for the HPV virus. HPV tests may be used for follow-up testing of women who have abnormal Pap test results and also for cervical cancer screening in combination with a Pap test for women over age 30.
“With approximately 70% of all cervical cancer linked to specific strains of HPV, understanding risk factors and the importance of screening plays a crucial role in the fight against the disease,“ said Paul Loar, MD, Gynecologic Oncologist at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at St. David's HealthCare. "When cervical cancer is diagnosed at any early stage, treatment options can be highly effective for women."
Cervical Cancer Screenings
- Age 21-29 - Pap test - every 3 years
- Age 30-65 - Pap test and HPV Test - every 5 years
- Age 65+ - Stop testing - Women with normal history should stop testing
Women with an abnormal diagnosis should be tested for 20 years following the result, even if testing continues past age 65. A woman whose uterus and cervix have been removed for non-cervical cancer reasons and who has no history of cervical cancer, should not be tested.