By: Dr. Maria Boylan, Elliot Family Medicine at Bedford
The cervix is a small organ that plays a big role in women’s reproductive health. Yet, it is vulnerable to the threat of cervical cancer, a disease that affects about 14,000 women in the United States yearly. Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that occurs in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection. Persistent infection with high-risk strains of HPV can lead to changes in the cervical cells, eventually progressing to cervical cancer if left untreated. Preventing cervical cancer involves a combination of vaccination, regular screenings, and adopting healthy lifestyle practices.
What can you do to prevent cervical cancer?
1. Get the HPV Vaccination
The HPV vaccine has been around for over 17 years now and is proven to be a safe and effective preventive measure against cervical cancer. In fact, it’s the only vaccine we have that can prevent or reduce your risk of cancer- including vaginal, vulgar, penile, and anal cancer. It is recommended for both males and females and is given starting at the age of 11 years old, with the hope of getting it into the immune system before a person becomes sexually active and is exposed to the virus. The vaccine protects against the most common high-risk HPV strains known to cause cancer or cervical disease.
2. Schedule Regular Screenings
Regular cervical screenings are crucial for early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. It also significantly increases the chances of successful treatment and cure. If abnormalities are detected during screenings, health care providers can recommend appropriate interventions to prevent the progression of cervical cancer. Two common types of screenings are:
- Pap Smear (aka “cervical cytology”): This test involves collecting cells from the cervix to check for any abnormalities. It can detect precancerous changes early on, allowing for intervention before cancer develops.
- HPV Test: This test checks for the presence of high-risk HPV strains that may lead to cervical cancer.
The U.S. Preventative Service Task Force recommends cervical cancer screening starting at age 21. For women ages 21-29, screening is done with PAP testing alone every three years. For women 30-65, screening includes a combination of PAP and HPV testing (or HPV testing alone in certain cases) and can be extended to every five years if the HPV test is negative. However, if a patient has risk factors (ie: new sexual partners or history of cervical disease), then screening may be done more frequently.
If you have an abnormal PAP or HPV test, your provider will guide you on the next steps. This typically involves having a procedure called a colposcopy that allows the provider to look more closely at the cells of the cervix. In this way, we can identify abnormal areas that may need to have a biopsy to tell us if there are changes that may become cancerous if not treated.
3. Practice Safe Sex
Practicing safe sex by using condoms or barrier methods can reduce the risk of transmission of HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Limiting the number of sexual partners also lowers the risk of exposure to the virus.
4. Quit Smoking
Smoking is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer. Quitting smoking not only benefits overall health but also contributes to lowering the risk of developing cervical cancer.
5. Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can support overall well-being and contribute to cervical health. This includes a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.
6. Get Regular Health Check-ups
Regular visits to a health care provider for routine check-ups and discussions about reproductive health are essential. These visits provide an opportunity to discuss risk factors, symptoms, and preventive measures. It’s important for individuals to work closely with their health care team to develop a personalized plan for cervical health based on their individual risk factors and medical history.
These six simple steps can help you prevent cervical cancer and increase the likelihood of successful treatment if it does appear. Book an appointment today with your health care provider and ask them how you can best maintain your cervical health.