The United States Congress designated January as Cervical Health Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year.
All women are at risk for cervical cancer, but it occurs most often in women over age 30. Long-lasting infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex.
The good news is that in the past 40 years, the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer has decreased significantly. This decline is the result of many more women getting vaccinated and having regular testing which can find cervical precancer before it turns into cancer.
HPV vaccines can help prevent infection from both high-risk HPV types that can lead to cervical cancer and low-risk types that cause genital warts. The CDC recommends all boys and girls get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12 as the vaccine produces a stronger immune response when taken during the preteen years. For this reason, up until age 14, only two doses of the vaccine are required. The vaccine is available for all males and females through age 45 but, for those 15 and older, a full three-dose series is needed.
A Pap test can find cell changes to the cervix caused by HPV. HPV tests find the virus and help healthcare providers know which women are at highest risk for cervical cancer. Pap and HPV tests (either alone or in combination) are recommended for women over 30. Each woman should ask her healthcare provider how often she should be screened, and which tests are right for her.
Cervical cancer is almost always preventable with vaccination and the appropriate screenings. When cervical cancer is found, it is highly treatable if detected early and treated soon after it is diagnosed. Be sure to let your doctor know if you any questions or concerns or have a family history of cervical cancer.