January is recognized as Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Across the country, organizations like the National Cervical Cancer Coalition (NCCC) and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) seek to raise awareness regarding the causes, risks, and preventable measures surrounding cervical cancer. Here’s a quick rundown of important facts to know about cervical cancer, and the virus most often at its source:
HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer
The American Cancer Society, estimated 13,750 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2019. The majority of these cases will be a result of having contracted HPV—the human papillomavirus, an incredibly common STI that is now preventable by vaccine.
The CDC recommends every child receive the vaccine by 11 or 12
The HPV vaccine has been available since 2006, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends all children—regardless of gender—receive the vaccine by the age of eleven or twelve. At that age, only two doses of the vaccine are necessary to achieve full protection. The vaccine is nearly 100% effective in preventing the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, so long as it is administered prior to a subject being exposed to that strain. The earlier a patient can be vaccinated, the better.
The vaccine is still effective up until the age of 45
Subjects older than the recommended age may still receive the vaccine—it will still reduce the chances of contracting the virus so long as the subject has not yet been exposed to that strain. Patients older than the recommended age will require a third dose to achieve the same level of prevention as those at a younger age. The FDA has approved the use of the HPV vaccine for individuals up to age forty-five.
HPV is incredibly common
HPV is an incredibly common sexually transmitted infection (STI) affecting 79 million people—nearly an entire quarter of the United States population. Nearly all sexually active adults will be exposed to the virus in their lifetime.
There are several strains of the virus
HPV is a collective terms describing around 150 strains of the virus. Some strains present themselves as genital warts or lesions and are generally eliminated by the body’s immune system entirely over the course of a couple of years. Other strains may lay dormant for years and are associated with a variety of cancers including penile, anal, oropharyngeal (cancer of the mouth, tongue and throat) and cervical cancers.
Not all forms of HPV can be detected—but those that cause cervical cancer can be
A Pap smear can detect cellular changes to the chemistry of the cervix caused by HPV. If those changes are detected early, the disease can be treated before it really even begins.
There are other risk factors in being diagnosed with cervical cancer
While HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, there are other risk factors at play in making a woman more susceptible to the disease. Smoking and obesity, for instance, can increase one’s likelihood to be diagnosed.
Be aware of warning signs
Cervical cancer has been described as a “silent killer” as there are very few early warning signs of the disease—another reason that detection during a pap smear can be so beneficial. With that being said, the early symptoms that one should be mindful when hoping to detect the disease include pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding, painful urination, unusual discharge, abnormal menstrual cycles, pain or bleeding after sex, anemia, urinary incontinence, and back pain.
With these things in mind, we hope that you can feel confident in taking the appropriate steps in preventing cervical cancer. We encourage you to contact your health professional if you have any further questions, including on how you or your loved ones might benefit from the HPV vaccine.