Forty years ago, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States. Thankfully, cervical cancer cases have decreased significantly. This is mainly due to an increase in women getting regular Pap tests, which can find cervical precancer before it turns into cancer.
Cervical cancer is a slow-growing disease that develops silently within the cervix cells in its early stages. Most cervical cancer is caused by strains of a very common sexually transmitted infection called human papillomavirus, or HPV. Many times, the immune system will prevent HPV from causing harm. Sometimes it can damage cervical cells in a way that can lead to cancer.
There’s no sure way to prevent cervical cancer. However, taking the following steps can reduce your risk.
Don’t Skip Your Screenings
“The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screening tests starting at age 21,” the CDC says. Screening can be accomplished in your doctor’s office in two ways:
- A Pap smear, which looks for cell changes to the cervix that may become cervical cancer in the future if left untreated.
- An HPV test, which detects the virus itself that can cause the cellular changes that lead to cervical cancer.
The HPV vaccine is important because it protects against the types of HPV that most frequently cause cervical cancer. The vaccine is administered in two-doses for people under the age of 15. Three-doses are given for anyone 15 and older.
The vaccine is most effective when it’s given before exposure to HPV. It’s available for those aged 9 and older, but is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds. It’s also recommended for everyone 26 and younger. Additionally, some unvaccinated people between the ages of 27 and 45 may choose to get the vaccine, depending on their risk for HPV infection. The vaccine is generally less beneficial for people who fall in this age range, because there’s a stronger likelihood of prior exposure to HPV.
Follow-Up on An Abnormal Pap Smear
For abnormal Pap smears, your doctor may recommend a test called a colposcopy, which allows them to look at your cervix using a magnifying lens to detect abnormal cells. If your physician identifies abnormal cells, they’ll perform a biopsy for further testing. The colposcopy and biopsy are fairly painless, so don’t panic if you need to get one. Your physician will likely ask you to return for another Pap smear at a later date. Don’t skip these tests, as they’re important in allowing your doctor to identify what’s going on in your body.
Practice Safe Sex
The key takeaways here are to use condoms and limit your number of sexual partners. Using condoms is associated with lower rates of cervical cancer, according to the CDC. Though there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the effect of condoms in preventing HPV.
Limiting your number of sexual partners is also important because it may reduce your odds of being exposed to HPV infection. HPV can be passed among people through skin-to-skin contact with a part of the body that’s infected with HPV (including the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, or anus). It’s important to understand that the virus can spread through this skin-to-skin contact even if you don’t have sex.
Keep in mind that limiting your number of sexual partners won’t put you in the clear in terms of getting HPV. The virus is very common, so you can still get HPV even if you only have one sexual partner.
Smoking can double your risk of getting cervical cancer. Staying away from cigarettes is important in lowering your risk for cervical cancer, The American Cancer Society says.
If you would like to meet with a knowledgeable doctor, consider contacting Women’s Health Arizona. As Arizona’s largest ObGyn group, we’re trained and solely dedicated to delivering the best ObGyn experience in convenient and comfortable settings around Phoenix.