Your cervix is a part of your body you’re unlikely to think about – unless you’re having a Pap smear or giving birth. Unfortunately, the cervix is a common site for cancer: every year, over 13 000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer in the United States alone.
The good news is that modern medicine has made it easier to prevent and treat cervical cancer effectively. January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, so now’s the perfect time to take action to protect your cervical health.
Cervical cancer 101
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers among women. The cervix is found between the lower part of the uterus to the vagina. It plays an important role in fertilization, pregnancy, and childbirth.
The more common cervical cancer symptoms are:
- pelvic pain or pain during urination
- unusual bleeding (such as between periods)
- unusual vaginal discharge
- needing to urinate more often
Because the symptoms can be mistaken for an irregular period or UTI, many people ignore them. For this reason, it’s wise to have regular Pap smears, which is the best way to detect precancerous and cancerous cervical cells. Early detection gives you a chance to prevent or treat cancer effectively.
What is the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is usually caused by a kind of human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all sexually active adults will get HPV at some point in their lifetime.
There are around 100 different strains of HPV, and not all of them can cause cervical cancer: According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about two thirds of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV 16 and HPV 18. Other types can cause genital warts.
However, just because you have a cancer-causing strain doesn’t mean you’ll get cancer. Most of the time, HPV clears out of your system on its own, usually in less than two years, without causing cancer or producing any symptoms.
HPV can also cause other cancers, including:
- vulvar cancer
- vaginal cancer
- penile cancer
- anal cancer
- rectal cancer
- throat cancer
While HPV doesn’t always cause cancer, taking steps to prevent an HPV infection can decrease your chances of getting the above types of cancer.
Preventing HPV and cervical cancer
Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of death for women in the United States. Thanks to modern screening methods, vaccines, and an increase in sexual education, we’re now better equipped to prevent HPV and cervical cancer. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer.
HPV is spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Skin-to-skin contact can increase your chances of getting HPV.
Bear in mind that HPV is common, and people are not routinely tested for it – many people never experience any symptoms at all. In other words, many people have HPV without even knowing it. For this reason, it’s wise to use condoms with all partners.
If you wish to stop using condoms with a partner – for example, if you want to fall pregnant – it’s a good idea to get tested for STIs first.
However, condoms are not 100% effective against HPV. In other words, it is possible to use condoms every single time and still contract HPV.
HPV vaccines have been developed in recent years. These vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, have been shown to be effective for preventing HPV. Because they prevent HPV, they can play a huge role in decreasing your chances of getting cervical cancer.
They are most effective before a person becomes sexually active, and initially, they were only available for children and teenagers. More recently, the age limit has increased. If you’d like to find out whether you could have an HPV vaccine, talk to your doctor.
Knew Health Members are able to share the costs of standard immunizations, like the HPV vaccine, for children under the age of 18. Contact [email protected] if you would like to learn more about our services or, if you’re already a Member, we’ll ensure you know how to submit those costs for sharing.
Regular Pap smears
Early detection will greatly increase your chance of surviving cervical cancer, which is why Pap smears are so important.
Even if you practice safe sex and have had the HPV vaccine, it’s wise to have regular Pap smears. Previously, organizations recommended an annual Pap smear. Now, it’s recommended that you have one every three years, starting at the age of 21.
However, if you have any concerning symptoms or if you think you have been exposed to HPV, it’s a good idea to get one done – even if it’s been less than three years.
A Pap smear essentially involves “scraping” the cells of the cervix. These cells are tested in a lab. If they are found to be abnormal – such as if they are cancerous or pre-cancerous cells – your doctor will discuss a treatment plan with you.
When you have a Pap smear, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for a general pelvic exam. This involves them checking your vulva and vaginal opening for any concerning symptoms, including rashes, irritation, warts, and more.
If you have HPV, there isn’t really a way to “treat” it. Most of the time, HPV cases simply go away on their own without causing warts or cancer. The infection will clear within one to two years.
It’s important to go for regular Pap smears during and after this time. This will help your doctor pick up on whether you have any pre-cancerous cells. It’s also important to use condoms during sex (or abstain) if you know you have HPV. It’s a wise choice to tell your partner/s about your diagnosis, especially if there’s a risk that they can pass it on to someone else.
Treating cervical cancer
Pap smears can detect precancerous cells, which can be treated. This means you can prevent cancer before it happens.
The good news is that cervical cancer can be treated. The earlier its detected, the better your chances of survival – which is why regular Pap smears are so important.
Common cervical cancer treatments include:
- Surgery, which can involve removing parts of the cervix that are affected
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy, which blocks the growth of new blood vessels that help cancer cells grow and survive
Two or more types of treatments can be combined if needed. Your doctor will discuss possible treatment plans with you.
Protecting cervical health: last thoughts
Many of us have delayed or postponed our regular screenings because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s essential that we get screened regularly in order to prevent cancer or detect it early.
The cost of Pap smears, pelvic exams, and cancer screenings can make it unaffordable. We encourage our members to take advantage of our Medical Concierge services. They can price-shop for various medical services to ensure that you’re paying fair and reasonable rates.
Our medical cost sharing model helps our members manage consultations and treatments. Members also benefit from accessing free second opinions, telemedicine, and bill negotiation services. So, whether you need to find the best place to get your HPV vaccine or a second opinion on your Pap smear results, we’re here to help! You can learn more about our services here.
When it comes to cervical cancer, prevention and early detection are your greatest allies. Don’t delay that Pap smear or doctor’s consultation any longer: take action today by booking an appointment or submitting a Medical Concierge request. You can contact our team at [email protected] for more information.
- Cervical Cancer Overview. (n.d). https://www.nccc-online.org/hpvcervical-cancer/cervical-cancer-overview/
- Cervical Cancer Overview. (n.d). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer.html
- Cervical cancer. (n.d.).
- Cervical cancer statistics. (2018).
- Genital HPV infection — fact sheet. (2017).
- How many cancers are linked with HPV each year? (2018).
- How is cervical cancer treated? (n.d.). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/treating.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Cervical cancer.
Disclaimer: This information is being provided to you for educational and informational purposes only. It is being provided to educate you about how to take care of your body and as a self-help tool for your own use so that you can reach your own health goals. It is not intended to treat or cure any specific illness and is not to replace the guidance provided by your own medical practitioner. This information is to be used at your own risk based on your own judgment. If you suspect you have a medical problem, we urge you to take appropriate action by seeking medical attention.