In the U.S., 11,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year and approximately 4,000 women pass away from the disease. Like any form of cancer, cervical cancer can greatly decrease quality of life and can ultimately result in death. Fortunately, these outcomes can often be avoided, as cervical cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer.
One of the key tenets of the practice of public health is informing people about various health issues and what they can do to avoid contracting illness. Therefore, given that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, below is information on some of the ways women can decrease their risk of developing cervical cancer.
Screening & Detection
Methods of screening and early detection have improved, contributing to a 74% decrease in the mortality rate over the past half century. The most common test is called the Pap test (or Pap smear), and it looks for cell changes on the cervix that could potentially become cancerous if left untreated. The cells collected during the Pap test can also be examined for HPV (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cervical cell changes. Abnormal test results do not necessarily mean that a woman has cancer. However, they could indicate a risk of developing cancer. If the risk is detected, doctors can kill the abnormal cells before they become cancerous.
There has been much debate over the past decade as to when and how often women should get screened. Currently, the CDC (Center for Disease Control & Prevention) recommends that women over the age of 21 be screened for cervical cancer every three years, and that women between the ages of 30-65 be screen for both cervical cancer and HPV every five years.
Transmission of HPV
HPV is the main risk factor for cervical cancer. While most people with HPV do not develop cancer, most people with cervical cancer have some type of HPV. The relationship between HPV and cervical cancer poses a serious public health concern. HPV is sexually transmitted, meaning that it can easily be passed on from partner to partner, along with the risk of cervical cancer. Women can lower their risk of contracting it by using condoms, limiting their number of sexual partners, or remaining abstinent. These practices can also reduce the risk of getting chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection that has been linked to an increased danger of developing cervical cancer.
Another preventative measure is choosing to abstain from tobacco. Women who smoke, especially those who already have HPV, have a higher risk for pre-cancerous changes in the cervix and the subsequent risk of developing cervical cancer. As smoking can also cause an array of other health problems, such as heart attacks and lung cancer, it is always best to avoid cigarettes and other tobacco products.
The HPV Vaccine
Despite the ongoing public debate about vaccinations, the CDC recommends that pre-teen girls and boys receive the HPV vaccine. The vaccine protects against the types of HPV that cause most cancers, including cervical cancer. Recent studies have shown that the vaccine has already had a significant impact. Researchers have already seen a 56% decrease in the number of new cases of HPV in women between the ages of 14-19. Although the vaccine has not been on the market long enough for researchers to determine whether or not it has led to a lower incidence of cervical cancer, we can speculate that lower HPV rates could potentially lead to lower cancer rates.
Although Cervical Cancer Awareness Month will be ending shortly women should work to stay informed about cervical cancer prevention year-round. Tufts Medical Center provides an annual free cervical and breast cancer awareness program (See, Test & Treat) every year in October, but there are plenty of resources to consider include:
• The Boston Planned Parenthood clinic offers many women’s health services, including cervical cancer screenings and HPV vaccinations.
• The Massachusetts Department of Public Health provides free cervical and breast cancer screenings for eligible, uninsured Massachusetts residents.
• The CDC’s web site has extensive information about cervical cancer and has a “Finding a Screening Provider” service.
Sammi Gassel is a student in the MS in Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and is also a James Hyde Newsletter Intern for the Tufts “Public Health Rounds” newsletter.
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