Avoid one of the most preventable types of cancer

By Johanna Brotz, UW Oshkosh Health Promotion Intern

Cervical cancer is a cancer that only affects women and WAS one of the hardest cancers to catch in time for treatment. In the past, early stages of cervical cancer didn’t have significant symptoms to catch the individual’s attention. Cervical cancer rates have declined drastically in recent years due to preventative measures like pap smears and vaccines for HPV. So why does HPV have anything to do with Cervical Cancer?

How does Cervical Cancer start?

HPV is a virus that is spread through sexual and/or oral contact between males and females. It is one of the most commonly spread viruses worldwide. About 80% of sexually active men and women will become infected with HPV once in their lives. In males and females, a HPV infection normally doesn’t develop symptoms but can sometimes leads to genital warts. Though not common, men can develop cancers of the penis, anus and throat related to a HPV infection. In women, HPV can develop cancers of the vulva, vagina, cervix, and anus. The most commonly developed cancer in women from HPV is cervical cancer. 99% of cervical cancer cases have a positive test for HPV. It does take years for HPV to develop into cancer, so early detection is crucial.

Symptoms

The early stages of cervical cancer almost never have symptoms to catch the progression of the cancer. Later stage symptoms are pelvic/back pains, irregular and/or painful menstruation, heavy and unusual discharge from the vagina, increased urination, pain during urination, fatigue, and weight loss.

How to prevent the spread of Cervical Cancer

There is a vaccine for two types of strains for HPV- currently there are hundreds of different HPV strains. The majority of strains cause genital warts while at least 13 different strains have caused cancer. The two strains the vaccine helps protect against are strains 16 and 18, these strains account for 70% of cervical cancer cases. There are vaccines available for both men and women.

A preventative procedure called a pap smear is also an important piece to preventing the development of cervical cancer. Pap smears are done at yearly physicals starting at the age of 21 and done every 3 years after the first one. During a pap smear, a small sample of cells from the individual’s cervix is taken and tested at a lab for abnormal precancerous cells (or lesions). The lab can also test for the HPV virus. By getting a routine pap smear done, you increase your odds of catching cervical cancer before it develops and allows you the opportunity to screen for a HPV infection.

At what age is cervical cancer most common?

Cervical cancer normally affects females later on in life. According to the CDC, 49 years old is the median age for HPV-associated cervical cancer diagnosis. Cervical cancer normally develops in patients that cannot fight off the HPV virus when first infected, so it take years for HPV to develop into cancer.

So what can YOU do today to prevent Cervical Cancer?

  1. Protect yourself from certain HPV strains! Contact your primary physician to see if you received the vaccine for HPV when you were a pre-teen. This age is when the vaccine is most effective- before any sexual activity begins. You can receive the HPV vaccine at any age, but the vaccine will be ineffective if you are already infected with HPV.
  2. Get Tested! Have your recommended pap smear every 3 years. This is your best bet for catching the progression to cervical cancer before it occurs. Pap smears are procedures that normally are covered by health insurances as preventative health.