Cervical Cancer Prevention
1/19/2016 by Dr. Matthew Meunier
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:
1. Human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination
The human papilloma virus (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 prevalent, it can be preventable with three doses of 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% 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% of cervical cancer, as well as genital warts, and is approved for women and men between ages 9-26.
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 individuals before they become sexually active.
2. Don’t smoke
There is no effective medical treatment for HPV infections. Despite this, most immune systems can eliminate the infection before the virus develops precancerous or cancerous lesions. It is important to have a strong immune system to fight 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 HPV causing cancer.
3. Pap smear & HPV testing
It can take years for HPV infections to cause cervical cancer. However, precancerous changes to the cervix caused by HPV can be detected with a routine Pap smear test and treated before cancer develops. While previous guidelines recommended yearly Pap smears, current guidelines reflect the long time period for HPV-caused cervical cancers.
These newer recommendations have been approved by all of the major professional organizations and apply to women without a history of HPV infection or abnormal Pap smears. Most women age 21 to 29 should have a Pap smear every three years, and most women 30 to 65 should have a Pap smear and an HPV test 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 to their doctor about current recommendations.
Dr. Matthew Meunier is a family physician with Women’s Health fellowship training in the Mayo Clinic Department of Family Medicine. He is the director of the Employee and Community Health Colposcopy Clinic for women with abnormal Pap smears.