About 13,200 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018 and more than 4,100 will die of the disease. In New York state alone, 870 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Most cervical cancers can be prevented by getting vaccinated for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and by getting recommended cancer screenings beginning at age 21. But there is more you should know about this disease:
1. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The virus, which is spread through sexual contact, is responsible for more than 90 percent of all cervical cancer cases.
HPV is very common in the U.S., infecting nearly one in every four Americans, but most infections won’t lead to cancer. (In addition to cervical cancer, certain types of HPV are linked to anal, oropharyngeal, vaginal, vulvar and penile cancers).
2. The HPV vaccine is most effective when given to preteens, but teens and young adults who have not already been vaccinated should also receive it. The HPV vaccine is recommended for 11- to 12-year-old girls and boys.
Research shows the immune system response is strongest at this age—well before they become sexually active. The vaccine is also recommended for females ages 13 to 26 and most males ages 13 to 21 who haven’t already completed the vaccine series.
3. African-American and Hispanic women are more likely to be diagnosed with and die of cervical cancer. The rate of cervical cancer for Hispanic women in the U.S. is about 44 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites.
The rate is similar for African-American women, who are twice as likely as white women to die of the disease. These disparities are caused in part by lower screening rates for minorities due to cultural and socioeconomic factors.
4. Smoking increases your risk for cervical cancer. Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as those who don’t. Smoking can also weaken the immune system’s response to HPV.
5. Your Pap test can help you prevent cervical cancer (or detect it early). A pelvic exam and Pap test can reveal precancerous conditions of the cervix that do not usually cause symptoms. Begin regular cervical cancer screening at age 21, even if you have been vaccinated for HPV.
Women in their twenties should have a Pap test every three years. For women ages 30-65, the preferred way to screen is with a Pap test combined with an HPV test every five years, or a Pap test every three years.
6. An abnormal Pap test does not mean you have cervical cancer. Most abnormal tests are caused by HPV, but most types of HPV don’t result in cancer. Typically, abnormal cells can be monitored and will go away on their own, but the most serious cell abnormalities can lead to cervical cancer if left untreated.
If you have an abnormal Pap test, your health care professional may recommend further testing to clarify the initial results and determine if treatment is necessary, depending on your age and family history.
(Statistics provided by the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute.)
To learn more about cervical cancer prevention, symptoms and treatment, visit preventcancer.org/cervical.
Dr. Wayne Kye is the spouse of Congresswoman Grace Meng and a member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program.