4 steps to prevent cervical cancer
1/26/2023 by Matthew Meunier, M.D.
Every year, approximately 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, this cancer is highly preventable, and women can significantly reduce their risk by following these steps:
Get an HPV vaccination.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with nearly 14 million Americans contracting it every year. In women, HPV can cause cervical cancer and other genital cancers. In all people, it can cause genital warts, as well as anal, head and neck cancers. While infection with HPV is extremely common, a vaccine can prevent it.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved a vaccine against nine types of HPV, including seven that cause 81% of cervical cancers and two that cause genital warts. Vaccination is recommended for people ages 9–25. However, the vaccine is approved up to age 45. Adults who are 27–45 should discuss possible benefits of HPV vaccination with their health care team.
Parents should ask their child's primary care clinician 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 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children 9–14 need only two doses if those doses are administered six months apart. To receive the same protection, teens and adults 15–45 require three doses over seven to eight months.
Although there is no effective medical treatment for HPV infections, most people can eliminate the infection from their bodies before the virus develops precancerous 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.
Get a Pap test and an HPV test.
It can take years for HPV infections to cause cervical cancer. However, HPV and precancerous cervical changes can be detected with routine testing. Available screening tests, which include a Pap smear and an HPV test, can detect early precancerous changes so they can be treated before cancer develops. While previous guidelines recommended a yearly Pap test, current guidelines recommend that most women 21–65 should have cervical cancer screening every three to 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 team about current recommendations.
Matthew Meunier, M.D., is a physician with women's health fellowship training in the Department of Family Medicine. He is a member of Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson, where he is the director of the Colposcopy Clinic, for women with abnormal Pap tests.