One question I hear a lot from my patients is, “Is there something I can do to keep from getting cervical cancer?” My answer is simple: Yes. There are two ways to stop cervical cancer from developing—the first is to find and treat pre-cancers before they become actual cancers, and the second is to prevent pre-cancers altogether. How do you do this? The best way is to have regular screening tests starting at age 21.
Stop cervical cancer before it starts with these two tests
I firmly believe that no woman should have to endure cervical cancer. This potentially fatal disease can be prevented by undergoing two simple screening tests to find pre-cancers before they turn into invasive cancer: the Pap test (or Pap smear) and the human papilloma virus (HPV) test.
If a pre-cancer is found, it can be treated and the cervical cancer can be stopped before it starts in earnest. Unfortunately, most invasive cervical cancers are found in women who have not had regular Pap tests.
1) The Pap test
The Pap test (or Pap smear) is a procedure that collects cells from your cervix so they can be examined under a microscope for signs of cancer or pre-cancer. Cell changes on the cervix may become cervical cancer if not treated appropriately. These cells can also be used for HPV testing. A Pap test is usually done during your pelvic exam as part of your annual OB/GYN checkup.
If your Pap test results are normal, your chances of getting cervical cancer in the next few years are very low. For that reason, your doctor may tell you that you do not need another Pap test for the next three years. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. If both test results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years to have your next Pap test. However, you should still see your OB/GYN every year for a checkup.
2) The HPV test
The human papillomavirus (HPV) test checks for the virus that can cause the cervical cell changes described above. HPV is a very common virus, passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin sexual contact, including vaginal, oral and anal sex. It is most common in people in their late teens and early 20s, and almost all sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never even know it.
Another way to prevent cervical cancer: the HPV vaccine
HPV infection can cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers in women; penile cancer in men; and anal cancer, cancer of the back of the throat (oropharynx) and genital warts in both men and women. Many of these cancers (which in some cases are fatal) could be prevented with vaccination.
Two HPV vaccines are available to protect women against the types of HPV that cause most cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. These vaccines are recommended for 11- and 12-year-old girls and for females 13-26 years of age who did not finish (or did not start) the injections when they were younger. NOTE: Even after you are vaccinated against HPV, you still need to have regular Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer.
Lowering your risk for cervical cancer
As well as being screened regularly by the Pap and HPV tests, and getting the HPV vaccine, there are additional things you can do to prevent pre-cancerous cells from developing:
- Avoid exposure to HPV by determining if your sexual partner has it.
- Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, quit.
- Use condoms during sex.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
If you are concerned about cervical cancer, please contact us
If it has been awhile since you’ve had a Pap or HPV test (or if you’ve never been tested), or if you would like to get the HPV vaccine, please contact us at Westchester Health to see one of our OB/GYN specialists. We’re here to answer any questions you may have and to discuss your options for treatment if testing does reveal pre-cancerous cells.