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Though highly preventable and treatable if caught in its early stages, cervical cancer remains the second leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide. The most significant risk factor for cervical cancer is the sexually transmitted virus, human papillomavirus, or HPV.
There are over 100 different types of HPV that are broken down into two categories: low-risk HPVs, which rarely cause cancer but can cause genital warts, and high-risk HPVs, which may cause cancer. HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for upwards of 70 percent of all cervical cancers.
Kerry Swenson, MD, PhD, OBGYN at NorthShore, stresses the importance of measures and tests that can prevent or identify cervical cancer in its early and most treatable stages:
HPV vaccine. More than 80 percent of women will be exposed to at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime. Thankfully, there is a vaccine that can protect against the four most common strains of HPV. The vaccine only works to prevent infection and is not effective if an infection is already present, which is why it is recommended that these vaccines are administered to girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26, and boys and men between the ages of 9 and 21. It is best to complete the HPV series before any sexual activity takes place with a potential exposure to the HPV virus. By protecting against HPV, the risk of developing cervical cancer is significantly reduced. HPV vaccines do not provide protection against all cancer-causing HPV infections so regular screening is still important.
Pap and HPV testing. Regular screening with a Pap smear may identify cervical cancer or cellular changes of the cervix that can lead to cervical cancer. Women should begin Pap tests at age 21 and every three years until age 30. At age 30, cotesting with a Pap smear and high-risk HPV test should be performed every five years, unless otherwise directed by your physician.
Well-rounded health. A healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercise and quitting smoking all contribute to lowering one’s risk for cervical cancer as well as many other types of cancer.
January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Remember to raise awareness about cervical cancer prevention among the important women in your life this month and year-round.