Cancer of the cervix is highly preventable. Regular Pap smears not only detect cancerous cells, but also abnormal changes in the cervix that can eventually progress to cancer over a period of 10 to 15 years.
A sexually transmitted virus called the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes almost all cases of cervical cancer. HPV usually goes away by itself, and most people with HPV never even know they have it. And while experts point out that most women infected with HPV will not develop cervical cancer, doctors urge women to be aware of that risk, and to get Pap smears regularly.
HPV can be categorized into two groups:
Low Risk - Two of the low-risk HPV strains are 6 and 11. Some HPV strains can cause genital warts but do not cause cervical cancer. These low-risk strains account for about 90% of genital warts.
High risk - Two high-risk types of HPV, strains 16 and 18, may stimulate the growth of precancerous cells in the cervix. If these abnormal cells are not found and treated, they may become cancerous. They account for about 70% of all cervical cancers and a smaller percentage of vaginal and vulval cancers.
Other Risk Factors Include:
Age: The risk of cervical cancer increases with age and most often is diagnosed in women over the age of 40. However, younger women are often diagnosed with precancerous lesions that require treatment to prevent cancer.
Smoking: Cigarette smoke contains chemicals that damage the body's cells. It increases the risk of precancerous changes in the cervix, especially in women with HPV.
Sexual behavior: Certain types of sexual activity may increase a risk of getting HPV infection such as multiple sexual partners, or high-risk male partners, first intercourse at an early age and using non-barrier birth control methods.
Lack of regular Pap tests: Cervical cancer is more common among women who have no prior Pap smear screening. The Pap test helps doctors find precancerous cells.
Sexually transmitted diseases: Women with an STD have a higher risk of cervical cancer.
Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth
Weakened immune system: Women who have undergone an organ transplant or take steroids for other reasons have a higher than average risk of developing cervical cancer.
HPV vaccines have the potential for preventing cervical cancer. A new vaccine offers protection from the virus that causes most cervical cancers by blocking the infection. The drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2006.
Routine vaccination is recommended for females ages 11 to 26. The vaccine is most effective when given to girls between the ages of 11 to 12. Three doses of the vaccine are given by injection during a six-month period.
A Pap test, often called a Pap smear, is a screening procedure used to detect abnormal cells in and around the cervix. In this test, the doctor uses a stick or brush to take a few cells from the cervix. An abnormal result could mean inflammation of the cervix, trichomonas or yeast infection, or other causes. In postmenopausal women, the Pap test could detect abnormal glandular cells that could indicate endometrial cancer.
Women should have a Pap test beginning three years after starting vaginal intercourse and no later than age 21.
At age 30, women with three or more consecutive exams with normal results may have a Pap smear performed less frequently. This is dependent on risk factors and should be discussed with the doctor.
Women who have been treated for cervical dysplasia (a precancerous lesion) or cancer may need to have a Pap smear more frequently if recommended by the doctor.
If you have had a hysterectomy, ask your doctor about screening. If you are healthy, had the hysterectomy for a reason other than precancer or cancer, and have normal Pap tests, then you may be screened less frequently. But even if your cervix was removed during your hysterectomy, regular pelvic exams are still recommended to check for precancerous cells in the vaginal and vulva area, especially for those who have been exposed to HPV.