Preventive habits go a long way
Viruses are everywhere. And throughout your life, you’re exposed to thousands of different types. But one you might not realize you or someone else has is human papillomavirus, or HPV. In fact, 75 percent of people will get HPV in their life, and many never know it. For most of these people, HPV doesn’t cause complications. For some, however, HPV causes cervical cancer.
About 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year, and 4,000 will die each year from it. But luckily, there is something you can do about it as cervical cancer is highly preventable.
“Most cases of cervical cancer are associated with human papilloma virus (HPV),” explains obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Evan McClennen. “Consequently, the best steps that you take to prevent cervical cancer are similar to those you take to avoid getting HPV.”
Here are four steps you can take to prevent cervical cancer.
HPV is spread through any kind of sexual contact, but the HPV vaccine can help you protect yourself.
“The only way to prevent HPV completely is abstinence; however, the vaccine can also safeguard you from several strains of HPV that can lead to cervical cancer,” says Dr. McClennen. “The HPV vaccine is recommended for both men and women because it prevents women from getting HPV and cervical cancer and men from spreading HPV.”
The HPV vaccine targets strains of HPV that cause about 90 percent of cervical cancers. The vaccine is most effective when it’s given to children ages 11 or 12, and it’s given in a series of two doses. For people older than 14, three doses are needed.
One of the best ways to screen for cervical cancer is a Pap test. Pap tests are recommended for women over age 21 every three years. Pap tests look at the cells in the vagina and cervix and check them for cancer or pre-cancerous growths.
“Because cervical cancer and HPV tests look at the same cells, it is possible to have both tests done at the same time,” says Dr. McClennen. “This co-testing allows doctors to get a full picture of whether you have HPV and whether you have any cellular changes that may be a sign of cervical cancer.”
However, because of how common HPV is in women in their twenties, most doctors will not do a Pap test and an HPV test unless they have an abnormal Pap result. For women in their thirties and up, it’s recommended to get co-tested every five years. Currently, there are no approved ways to test men for HPV.
If tests find pre-cancer, it can be treated and stop cervical cancer before it starts. If they find cancer, catching it early can stop it from spreading through the rest of the body.
Practice healthy habits
Everyday habits can also have an effect on your cervical cancer risk. For instance, smoking doubles the risk of cervical cancer. And women who don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables in their diet are at an increased risk for cervical cancer.
“As with any cancer or chronic disease, your lifestyle is important,” says Dr. McClennen. “Eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding drugs, alcohols and toxins are good ways to avoid cancers, including cervical cancer.”
Because HPV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the best prevention comes from using condoms and limiting your number of sexual partners.
Other STIs can also increase the risk of cervical cancer. HIV can compromise your immune system, making it easier to get HPV and cervical cancer. In addition, women whose blood and cervical mucus showed evidence of past or present chlamydia infections were at higher risk for cervical cancer.
Appropriate STI testing and doctor appointments can help you catch infections and avoid cervical cancer in the future.
Dr. Evan McClennen, DO, is an obstetrician/gynecologist. She sees patients at Geisinger Women’s Health in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. McClennen or another Geisinger OBGYN, please call 800-275-6401 or visit Geisinger.org.