Cervical cancer prevention: The good news

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer but it still takes thousands of women’s lives every year. Early vaccination and regular screening can help stop the disease in its tracks.

  • Kids should begin HPV vaccinations at age 11 or 12
  • Women should get their first Pap test at age 21
  • An HPV test can determine if you have the HPV infection and whether you’re at high risk for cervical cancer

[2 MIN READ]

More than 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year. And although an estimated 93 percent of cervical cancers are preventable, the disease kills more than 4,000 women annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus (HPV)—a common infection spread through sexual contact that can lead to cancer or genital warts. Normally, your immune system can fight off the HPV infection before cancer cells have a chance to form, but in other instances the virus leads to cancer.

Cervical cancer typically develops slowly over time and may spread to other areas of the body if it remains undetected – which it often does because there aren’t always visible symptoms. That’s why routine screening is essential.

The good news is that when cervical cancer is found early, it responds very well to treatment and has high rates of survival and good quality of life post-cancer. The 5-year survival rate for women with invasive cervical cancer when detected early is 92%. 

The good news is that when cervical cancer is found early, it responds very well to treatment and has high rates of survival and good quality of life post-cancer. The 5-year survival rate for women with invasive cervical cancer when detected early is 92%. In addition, the HPV vaccine prevents the infection altogether and screenings can often avert cancer.

During National Cervical Health Awareness Month, we’re taking a good look at what you can do for prevention.

Vaccinate early

HPV vaccinations offer protection against contracting the infections that cause genital warts and cancer. For women, that includes cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. For men it includes genital cancer. HPV can also cause anal, head and neck cancers in both men and women.

HPV vaccinations offer protection against contracting the infections that cause genital warts and cancer.

To provide the greatest benefit, the vaccine should be given when you’re young and before you’ve been exposed to HPV – the vaccine doesn’t treat existing infections.

If the vaccine is administered before you turn 15, you’ll need two doses, spaced 6 to 12 months apart. If you get the vaccine after age 15 the vaccine series has three doses.

According to CDC guidelines:

  • HPV vaccination should start for both girls and boys at age 11 or 12. It can be given as early as 9 years old.
  • The vaccine series is recommended for everyone through age 26, sometimes up to 30.
  • The HPV vaccine is most effective when taken during the preteen years but you can be vaccinated through age 45.

Screen regularly

Two simple tests provide early detection or prevention altogether:

  • A Pap test identifies changes to your cervix caused by HPV.
  • HPV tests verify if the virus is present and identify which women have the highest risk of developing cervical cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society guidelines:

  • Women should get their first Pap test at age 21. If no abnormal results are found, screenings should continue every 3 years until age 30.
  • From age 30 to 65, a Pap test combined with an HPV test (or co-testing) is recommended every 5 years.
  • Women age 30 to 65 can also get just a Pap test every 3 years if they prefer not to co-test.
  • Women at high risk of cervical cancer should follow the screening recommendations of their doctor.
  • Women older than 65 who have had regular screenings over the previous 10 years with no serious pre-cancers for the past 20 years can stop cervical cancer screening. If any abnormalities have been found, screenings should continue for at least 20 years after the first identification.
  • Women who’ve undergone a total hysterectomy to remove their uterus and cervix do not need cervical cancer screening unless their hysterectomy was treating cervical cancer or pre-cancer. Women who have a hysterectomy that leaves their cervix intact should continue screenings according to the guidelines above.

With so many ways to prevent this disease, your doctor can recommend your best way to stay safe.

Find a doctor

Our large group of Providence obstetricians and gynecologists bring a compassionate, professional approach to a full range of women’s health issues from preventive screenings to cancer diagnosis and treatment. You can find a doctor using our provider directory. Or you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

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Celebrate National Cervical Health Awareness Month by sharing your strategies for staying healthy with our #women readers @psjh.

Related resources

Medical screenings every woman should have

5 Foods for a Healthy Cervix

High BMI may put women at risk for early colorectal cancer

Celebrate National Cervical Health Awareness Month by sharing your strategies for staying healthy with our #women readers @psjh

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

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