Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide. But did you know it’s almost always preventable?
“Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the HPV virus,” says Dr. Tashanna Myers, a gynecologic oncologist with the Baystate Regional Cancer Program. “The key is to get vaccinated against the virus before you become sexually active.”
She says that the Gardasil 9 vaccine is approved for use in females ages 9 through 26 and males ages 9 through 15 (males can spread the virus), and offers up to a 90% reduction in cervical cancer.
3 Steps for Prevention & Early Detection of Cervical Cancer
Myers offers the following steps to dramatically reduce your risk for cervical cancer.
- Get vaccinated before you become sexually active.
- Get PAP smears and examinations as recommended by your health care provider based on your risk factors (see chart for general recommendations).
- Don’t smoke; it weakens the immune system and can lead to chronic HPV infection.
Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer
There are a number of factors that can increase your risk for developing cervical cancer.
- HPV infection
- Early age of first intercourse or pregnancy
- History of chlamydia infection
- Use of the birth control pill
- Multiple full term pregnancies
- Multiple sexual partners
- Smoking (puts you at 3.5 time greater risk)
- Being immunosuppressed
- Lack of access to routine gynecological care
Warning Signs of Cervical Cancer
Myers notes that the average age that women are diagnosed with cervical cancer is 49, with an equal number diagnosed between the ages of 30-39 and 60-69. And because early stage cervical cancer typically has no symptoms, it’s important to know your body and be vigilant.
Here’s what you should be on the lookout for:
- Vaginal bleeding that’s abnormal for you. This may include bleeding after sex, very heavy periods, and bleeding after menopause.
- A vaginal discharge that smells bad between your periods.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.
- Pelvic pain.
- Pain when you pee.
If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your gynecologist or nurse-midwife for an evaluation. If cervical cancer is diagnosed, seek care from a gynecologic oncologist (a specialist in gynecologic cancer).
General Cervical Cancer Screening Recommendations
You should get your first PAP smear and pelvic exam when you become sexually active or at age 21. Check the chart below for recommendations about age and frequency, but talk to your provider about the screening schedule best for you based on your risk factors.