Let's Talk: What You Need to Know about Cervical Cancer and How to Prevent It
BY JENN FISHER
Cervical cancer isn’t exactly dinner table talk. But every January, cervical cancer awareness month serves as an important reminder that knowing about it – and what puts you at risk for it – could save your life. Every year, more than 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and the cause for most of those cases is human papillomavirus infection, or HPV.
“HPV, isn’t just a single virus, but a family of more than 100 types,” says Martin Martino, MD, gynecologic oncologist with LVPG Gynecologic Oncology. “Of those 100, two types – HPV16 and HPV18 – are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 91 percent of cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV infection, and a high percentage (63 percent and up) of other genital tract and head and neck cancers are also caused by HPV.
How can I prevent HPV infection?
Safeguarding yourself (or your child) against HPV infection has two paths: vaccination and education. HPV is one of the most common sexually-transmitted infections, and many men and women are exposed to this virus by the time they are 30. This virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact as well as sexual relations. Condoms provide some protection when used properly, but they do not eliminate your risk.
Vaccination is the preferred way to protect against HPV infection. Three HPV vaccines are FDA-approved in the United States and these are given as a series of two or three shots. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends vaccinating boys and girls around age 11 or 12, however the vaccine series can be given to children as young as 9 years old and up to age 26. The HPV vaccine is also FDA-approved for women up to age 45 – but women over 27 should talk with their gynecologist.\
How can I be screened for cervical cancer and HPV?
Pap tests help to screen for cervical cancer by taking a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix during a gynecologic exam. The sample is sent to a lab for testing, and the results will tell you if there are abnormal cells present. An additional piece of information can be gathered by having an HPV DNA test done at the same time as a Pap test. This test will help determine if HPV is present in the cell sample.
What happens if I find out I have cervical cancer?
Your primary care provider or obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) will refer you to a gynecologic oncologist for further guidance. At Lehigh ValleyCancer Institute, our gynecologic oncologists and multidisciplinary care team offer leading-edge treatments for women diagnosed with cervical cancer, including minimally invasive and open surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
However, preventing cervical cancer through a combination of HPV vaccination and co-testing to include the Pap test with an HPV test, is the goal Martino and his colleagues strive for. “Our dream, our hope and our wish, is to someday say that through education, research, and public awareness, we were able to prevent our patients from ever getting cervical cancer,” he says.