The American Cancer Society predicts that there will be over 11,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer in the U.S. this year. About 3,600 women will die from this disease that same year.
Some researchers think that non-invasive cervical cancer is about 4 times as common as the invasive type. When found and treated early, cervical cancer often can be cured.
Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. But since 1955 the number of deaths from cervical cancer has declined a lot. The main reason for this change is the use of the Pap test to find cervical cancer early.
One of the best and proven steps that you can take to prevent cervical cancer is to have a Pap test. The Pap test looks for changes in the cervix that might lead to cancer. If cancer does occur, this test can find it early when it is easier to treat.
The American Cancer Society Guidelines for Early Detection of Cervical Cancer state that women should begin testing about three years after becoming sexually active, but no later than age 21. At age 30, if you have had three normal Pap test results in a row, you may get tested every two to three years. Some women may need to be tested yearly.
While most women get Pap tests every year, national guidelines have been recommending testing every two to three years since 1987. Ask your doctor or nurse how often you should have your Pap test.
Changes in the cervix are often caused by a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is spread through sex and can cause an infection in the cervix. The infection usually doesn’t last very long because your body is able to fight it. If the HPV doesn’t go away, the virus may cause cervix cells to change and become precancer cells.
Precancer cells are not cancer and most return to normal on their own. Sometimes, the precancer cells may turn into cancer if they are not found and treated. Because HPV has no symptoms, having a Pap test to test for changes is important.
Almost all (more than 99 percent) cervical cancers are related to HPV. Of these, about 70 percent are caused by HPV types 16 or 18. Although nearly all cervical cancers are related to HPV, most genital HPV infections do not cause cervical cancer.
Can HPV be prevented? Yes, by getting the HPV vaccine before exposure will prevent some HPV. But the only sure way to prevent HPV is to abstain from all sexual activity.
In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine that prevents two types of HPV (HPV 16 and 18) that cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers.
To be most effective, the HPV vaccine should be given before a female becomes sexually active and in a series of three doses within six months. The vaccine is most commonly given to girls between the ages of 9-26.
The American Cancer Society recommends that women talk to their doctor or nurse about whether to get the vaccine based on their risk of previous HPV exposure and potential benefit from the vaccine. People who get vaccinated will still need Pap tests because the vaccine will not prevent all types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
If your daughter or granddaughter receives the vaccine, she will still need to have Pap tests at the appropriate age.
The local Savannah office has a schedule of informational meetings that will focus on the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer. You can call your local American Cancer Society office at (912) 355-5196 for a list of upcoming dates and locations.
For more information on cervical cancer, Pap tests and HPV, visit www.cancer.org or call 1-800-ACS-2345.