7 Things you should know about cervical cancer

Cervical cancer, which most often is caused by a sexually transmitted virus, is very curable when treated early.

There has been a lot of information in the news, in public service ads, and most likely from your doctor about the importance of being aware of cervical cancer. In fact, January is Cervical Cancer Month and is set aside to create more awareness of the disease. The truth is, cervical cancer is the easiest gynecological cancer to prevent with regular testing and a vaccine and to cure.

The cervix is the lower, narrow part of the uterus and that’s why it’s so easy for the human papillomavirus (HPV) to be passed between sexual partners.

According to Beth Jernigan, cancer center administrator for Central Florida Health Alliance, the American Cancer Society has recommendations regarding the vaccine for HPV. Beth has a master’s of science degree in nursing and is a registered nurse, an oncology certified nurse, and a certified tumor registrar.

“Routine HPV vaccinations for girls and boys should be started at age 11 or 12,” Beth says, “though it can be started as early as age 9.”

The vaccinations also are recommended for females 13 to 26 years old and for males 13 to 21 years old who have not started the vaccines or who started but did not complete the series. Males 22 to 26 years old also may get vaccinated. It is important to know for those 22 to 26 years old, however, that vaccination is less effective in lowering cancer risk at older ages.

HPV vaccinations also are recommended through age 26 for men who have male partners or for people with weakened immune systems or HIV infection if they have not previously been vaccinated.

Here are seven things you should know to avoid and treat cervical cancer:

Around 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer every year. This occurs most often in women 30 years old or older. However, all women are at risk.

Like other cancers, several factors put women at risk to get cervical cancer. HPV is a virus that is easily passed from person to person through sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral sex). It causes an infection that, if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer. Other risks if you have HPV include smoking, taking birth control pills for longer than five years, or giving birth to three or more children. However, a vaccine is available for those ages 11 to 26 that aids in preventing cancer. It is licensed, safe, and effective.

Symptoms of cervical cancer usually do not appear until the disease is in advanced stages. These include bleeding or discharge from the vagina. Of course, these are also symptoms of many other problems, but should always be checked by your doctor.

The best way to screen for cervical cancer is a Pap test. It can be done quickly and painlessly in your doctor’s office during a routine physical. Screening should begin at age 21. If the Pap test reveals changes in your cervix, the doctor may suggest more tests. If you are between 30 and 65, you also should get the HPV test to determine if the virus is present. The HPV test is not recommended for women under 30.

How often should you get a Pap test? Between ages 21 and 29, every three years; between ages 30 and 64, get a Pap test and HPV test together every five years, or a Pap test alone every three years; after age 65, ask your doctor if you still need a Pap test. If you have had a hysterectomy with removal of the cervix, no Pap tests are needed. If you had a hysterectomy because of an abnormal Pap test, do not stop getting tests until you have received three normal results. Though it’s not common, if you have a hysterectomy and keep your cervix, have regular Pap tests until age 65.

To protect yourself from HPV, always use a condom when having sexual intercourse. The best way to prevent catching HPV is to be monogamous or abstain.

For more information, see womenshealth.gov/cancer/cervical-cancer, which also provides other resources. You also can get information from the American Cancer Society at cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer.