Cervical cancer is still the leading cause of cancer deaths among young women and it is almost entirely preventable. Cervical cancer is caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that is common among sexually active women. However, not all women with HPV will develop atypical cells on their cervix that could lead to cervical cancer. If these atypical cells are detected on pap smear, a procedure is required to remove them in order to prevent cervical cancer from the cervix. While cervical cancer is very rare, thanks to current screening, precancerous changes on the cervix in women aged 20-50 is actually more common than breast cancer and everyone should be screened regularly.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
For women 21-30, doctors recommend getting a pap smear at least every other year to check for these atypical cells. For women over 30, you are also eligible for an HPV test which detects if you are carrying the virus that puts you at risk for developing cervical precancer or cancer later in life. Because a pap smear only detects atypical cells 60% of the time when they are actually there, adding the HPV test can significantly reduce the risk of developing an abnormality between routine exams.
How Can You Protect Your Family?
There is now a vaccine to protect girls and boys from HPV. This vaccine does not contain any live virus and is very safe for all adolescents. The CDC recommends that girls and boys are vaccinated at a routine adolescent heath visit at age 11-12, but they can receive the vaccine up to age 26. There are two vaccines available: Cervarix® (GSK) which protects against the two most common types of cervical cancer causing HPV, and GARDASIL® (Merck) which protects against cervical cancer as well as the HPV types causing genital warts. The vaccine is given in 3 doses at 3 different visits over a 6 month period of time.
HPV has recently been linked to other health problems including mouth, throat, and skin cancers, penile cancers, and may even be linked to heart disease in women. We are still learning about the potential health benefits of HPV vaccines but the benefit in prevention of cervical cancer and genital warts is well proven.
All of MUSC’s gynecology practices and pediatric offices offer the HPV vaccine and HPV testing in addition to regular women’s and children’s health screenings. Learn more about the locations in your area or request an appointment.
Guest Author: Dr. Jennifer Young Pierce is a Gynecologic Oncologist and is Board Certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Her specialties include minimally invasive robotic surgery, research in the human papillomavirus (HPV) and its effects on the female genital tract, health disparities and cancer prevention. Dr. Pierce is one of only two female gynecologic oncologists in South Carolina and is part of the Gynecologic Oncology team at Hollings Cancer Center.