Employee & Community Health

3 steps to preventing cervical cancer

1/9/2017 by Dr. Matthew Meunier

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Every year, approximately 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, this cancer is highly preventable, and women can significantly reduce their risk by following three steps: 

Get an HPV vaccination.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with nearly 14 million Americans contracting it every year. In women, HPV causes cervical cancer and other genital cancers. In both women and men, it causes genital warts, as well as anal, head and neck cancers. While infection with HPV is extremely common, it can be prevented with a vaccine. 

In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a vaccine against four different types of HPV, including two types that cause 66 percent of cervical cancer and two that cause genital warts. Then in December 2014, the FDA approved a new HPV vaccine that protects against the same four types of HPV as in the older vaccine, plus an additional five types of HPV. 

This HPV-9 vaccine protects against the HPV types that cause 81 percent of cervical cancer, as well as genital warts, and is approved for all individuals between the ages of nine and 26. 

Parents should ask their child's doctor about the HPV-9 vaccination. It has an excellent safety record and is most effective when given to young people before they become sexually active. In October 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that children ages nine through 14 need only two doses, if those doses are administered six months apart. To receive the same protection, teens and young adults, ages 15 to 26, require three doses over the course of seven to eight months. 

Don't smoke.

Even though there is no effective medical treatment for HPV infections, most of us can eliminate the infection from our bodies before the virus develops pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions. A strong immune system is important for fighting off HPV infections because the risk of cancer increases the longer HPV is present. Smoking has been shown to limit the immune system's ability to eliminate HPV, which then increases the risk of cancers caused by HPV. 

Pap test and HPV testing. 

It can take years for HPV infections to cause cervical cancer. However, pre-cancerous changes to the cervix caused by HPV can be detected with a routine Pap test and treated before cancer develops. While previous guidelines recommended yearly Pap test, current guidelines reflect the long time frame for HPV-caused cervical cancers. 

These newer recommendations have been approved by all major professional organizations and apply to women without a history of HPV infection or abnormal Pap tests. Most women age 21 to 29 should have a Pap every three years, and most women 30 to 65 should have Pap and HPV tests every five years. 

Cervical cancer screening guidelines continue to evolve as researchers learn more about HPV and how it causes cancer. Therefore, women should continue to talk with their primary care provider about current recommendations. 

Dr. Matthew Meunier is a family physician with Women's Health fellowship training in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Department of Family Medicine. He is the director of the Employee and Community Health Colposcopy Clinic for women with abnormal Pap tests.