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Get a Screen and a Vaccine to Prevent Cervical Cancer

Thanks to screening and vaccination guidelines, cervical cancer has become less common and more treatable.

Woman meeting with her doctorIt doesn’t get the awareness of breast cancer, or even make the top 20 of the most common cancers in Iowa, but cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of death for women of childbearing age.

Today, it’s pretty rare. Of the estimated 12,360 of new cases in the U.S. this year, only 100 will affect Iowa women. But the incidence rate in some central Iowa cities is higher, making it more important for women to get the recommended screenings and vaccinations.

According to data collected by the Iowa Cancer Registry, Altoona women have a 24 percent greater risk of cervical cancer. In Des Moines, the probability of getting the disease is also above the averages seen in the rest of the state.

Despite those increased odds for women in central Iowa, cervical cancer is both easily prevented and easily treated. Especially, if you’re aware of the causes, risk factors and signs — and catch the disease in its early stages.

Awareness is important because the signs of cervical cancer are hard to spot.

Early detection isn’t easy. Cervical cancer doesn’t really cause noticeable symptoms early on. Vaginal bleeding, unusual vaginal discharge, pelvic pain and pain during sex are the most common ones. As the cancer advances and spreads beyond the cervix, you might experience more noticeable symptoms like:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Urine leakage
  • Fractures

There’s also no single cause for cervical cancer, which makes it hard to catch early without regular screening and prevention. It could be genetic — either in your family or due to a gene mutation — and out of your control. Or it could be due to some other health condition or factor in your lifestyle. But there is one disease that’s the culprit in most cases.

HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer.

Human papillomavirus causes more than 70 percent of cervical cancers. This common viral infection affects the reproductive tract. It’s so common that nearly every sexually active man and woman get it at some point in their lives. In most cases, it doesn’t cause any problems and goes away on its own after a few months. But persistent infections of certain types of HPV accumulated over the years can lead to dysplasia, an abnormal growth of tissue that can lead to cancer.

Because HPV rarely shows signs, most people don’t even know they have it. So they don’t know that they’re spreading it to their partner, which is how HPV has become the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. But there are many things you can do to prevent HPV and, in turn, greatly reduce your chances of cervical cancer.

PAP smears and vaccines top the list of risk reducers.

There are more than 100 different types of HPV — another reason the infection is so common. But there are several things you can do to prevent HPV and cervical cancer. And the latest guidelines recommend starting before you’re sexually active.

1. Get the HPV vaccine.

Of the 100-plus types of HPV, the HPV vaccine protects against the four most common strains — two high-risk and two low-risk. Ideally, it’s given before you become sexually active. So the CDC recommends the vaccine for both girls and boys at age 11 or 12 in two doses, six to 12 months apart. If you missed the vaccine at that age but are still under the age of 26, you’ll have to get three doses.

2. Get screened for cervical cancer.

After you turn 26, the best way to prevent cervical cancer is routine screening. If you’re visiting your gynecologist regularly, you’re already getting screened — even if you didn’t know it. Pap smears, which you start getting every three years once you hit 21, look for cell changes on the cervix. A normal result means you have a very low risk of developing cervical cancer in the time until your next Pap test.

Once you turn 30, you should get an HPV test along with your Pap smear. So in addition to checking for abnormal cells, you’re screened for the infection that leads to those abnormalities. If you check out okay on both tests, you only need these screenings every five years until the age of 65.

3. Practice safe sex.

If you’re sexually active, use a condom. Every time. While it isn’t known if condoms can actually prevent HPV, condom use is associated with lower rates of cervical cancer. And because HPV is so prevalent, limiting the number of sexual partners you have can also reduce your risk of infection.

4. Don’t smoke.

Smoking isn’t just linked to lung cancer; it can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body. The poisons in the cigarette smoke you inhale weaken your immune system and make it harder to kill cancer cells. They can also damage the DNA of your cells, causing them to grow abnormally and develop into cancer. So, if you smoke and have a persistent HPV infection, you may lack the healthy immune system to keep it from turning into cervical cancer.

Even if you don’t prevent cervical cancer, you can still treat it.

Cervical cancer is curable — especially if your OB/GYN caught it early. But the outlook depends on the stage of the cancer. If you’re diagnosed with cervical cancer, ask for a referral to a gynecologic oncologist to learn which type of cervical cancer you have, what stage it’s in and what your treatment options are. Depending on your age and desire to preserve your ability to have children, your treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery or targeted therapy.

If you want to know your risk long before diagnosis, talk to your gynecologist about getting a Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer and getting vaccinated or tested for HPV.

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