Thanks to Pap smears and the HPV vaccine, cervical cancer is the most preventable gynecological cancer. Yet, around 12,000 women in the U.S. get it each year and 4,000 die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What is cervical cancer and how can you prevent it? Here’s what you need to know about cervical cancer, just in time for Cervical Health Awareness Month.
What Is Cervical Cancer?
The cervix is the lower, narrow end of a woman’s uterus. Most cervical cancer is caused by a sexually-transmitted virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is so common that at least half of sexually active people get it at some point. HPV usually causes no symptoms and clears up on its own. But it can linger and cause cancerous cells to grow on the cervix.
Who Is at Risk for Cervical Cancer?
Cervical cancer usually occurs in women over age 30, but all women are at risk. Other risks factors include:
- Having HIV or another condition that weakens the immune system
- Having given birth to three or more children
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Using birth control pills for five or more years
How You Can Reduce Your Risk
Regular screenings are the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Two simple tests help your doctor spot the early warning signs:
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancerous cells on the cervix. Your doctor can remove these cells before they develop into cancer.
- The HPV test looks for the presence of the virus itself.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women ages 21-29 get a Pap test every three years, and that women ages 30-65 get a Pap test and HPV test every five years. If you have other risk factors or have had abnormal test results in the past, your doctor will want you to have more regular screenings.
For girls and younger women, the HPV vaccine is another important way to prevent cervical cancer. The CDC recommends girls get the vaccine at age 11 or 12. Women aged 13 through 26 years can also get vaccinated if they weren’t when they were younger.
Knowing how to prevent cervical cancer and being proactive can help you and your female friends feel empowered and take ownership of your bodies. To learn more about preventing cervical cancer, talk to your doctor to develop the right care plan for you.
Advice or recommendations are for informational or educational purposes only, not a substitute for a visit or consultation with your doctor.