Cervical Cancer Screening
Cervical cancer screening is an essential component of your annual gynecological visit with us at Women’s Care in Obstetrics and Gynecology. During your visit, you may or may not have a “pap test” done. A Pap test is a screening test for cervical cancer, checking for abnormal cell changes of the cervix. This allows for early treatment so the abnormal cells do not become cancer. An HPV test also is available and is used along with the Pap test to screen for cervical cancer in some women. We also use HPV testing as a follow-up when a woman receives an abnormal Pap test result. HPV is short for the Human papilloma virus. There are more than 120 strains of HPV identified. At least 15 strains of HPV are linked with cervical and other cancers, like head and neck cancers, anal, vulva, vaginal, and penial. Approximately 12 strains of the HPV virus cause genital warts.
Cervical Cancer Risk Factors
The most important risk factor for cervical cancer is infection with “high risk” strains of HPV. There are several other important risk factors for HPV infection. For example, having multiple sexual partners, having a partner who has had multiple partners, and early onset sexual activity (younger than 18) increase your risk.. Risk factors for cervical cancer beyond HPV infection include a personal history of dysplasia, family history of cervical cancer, smoking, STI’s (chlamydia and gonorrhea), and problems with your immune system. Symptoms of cervical cancer include abnormal bleeding, and spotting or watery vaginal discharge. Menstrual bleeding may be heavier and bleeding after sex may also be warning signs.
Can Cervical Cancer be Prevented?
Is there a way to prevent cervical cancer and the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer? The answer is YES!
Your immune system fights most infections and helps clear the virus from your body. The inability to clear HPV results in persistent infections. Persistent infections with a high-risk HPV type cause cells to become abnormal and pre-cancerous. This usually takes years to happen. You can help your immune system by vaccinating yourself against the HPV virus. Gardasil 9 is the newest vaccine and vaccinates you against the most aggressive strains 16 and 18. It also protects against against the most common HPV strains to cause genital warts, HPV 6 and 11. It covers 5 other high risk strains as well. Vaccination works best prior to a person becoming sexually active and exposed to HPV. However, even after exposure, it can reduce the risk of getting HPV. The ideal age for the HPV vaccine in both girls and boys is ages 11-12. Importantly, the vaccine is given until age 26. Studies show that getting all three doses of the HPV vaccine before you are sexually active can reduce your risk of getting certain types of HPV-related cancer by up to 99%. The most common side effect of receiving the HPV vaccine are soreness and redness at the injection site. Currently this is the only vaccine we currently have to protect against a cancer!