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December 12, 2023

Understanding the Link Between HPV and Cervical Cancer

Understanding the Link Between HPV and Cervical Cancer

It may be surprising to learn that cervical cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer. Understanding how this type of gynecologic cancer develops, and associated risk factors can help reduce your chance of diagnosis. Let's take a closer look at cervical cancer, how it develops, and the steps you can take now to protect your health.

What Causes Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer usually starts slowly with the development of pre-cancerous cells, called dysplasia. Ultimately, this gradual change in cells leads to cancer on the cervix. The most common cause of cervical cancer is a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI).

HPV is a broad category that includes over 100 viruses. About 40 of them are contracted through sexual contact. The truth is that most sexually active adults have been exposed to the HPV virus at some point simply because it is incredibly easy to transmit from person to person, and not everybody knows they have the virus because there may be no symptoms.

Most variations of HPV do not cause cancer. In fact, most HPV diagnoses clear up without medical intervention. However, there are a few high-risk variations of HPV that cause cervical cancer. Types 16 and 18 are linked to over 70% of cervical cancer cases.

There aren’t many signs and symptoms of cervical cancer until it has developed into a later stage cancer. When symptoms appear, they include abnormal vaginal bleeding, changes in vaginal discharge, and painful intercourse. Therefore, informing your doctor of any health changes is essential to ensure early diagnosis.

Prioritize Cervical Cancer Screenings

Routine cervical cancer screenings help prevent the cervical cancer from developing in many women. The test can detect precancerous cervical cells so they can be removed before cancer develops. The test will also identify cancer cells that may have developed. The earlier cervical cancer is diagnosed, the better the outcome of treatment.

Schedule an appointment with your gynecologist for a routine exam, including a PAP test. During the PAP test, the doctor will scrape some of the cervix cells to examine them under a microscope and look for any abnormalities in the cells.

If you're unsure when to get a PAP test, follow the American Cancer Society's (ACS) suggestions for cervical cancer screenings. They recommend women should start HPV tests once they turn 25 and follow these guidelines:

  • HPV tests every five years for patients ages 25-65. Women can test with a combined HPV/PAP test every five years. However, testing with a Pap test every three years is still acceptable.

  • Women aged 65 or older who have had consistent screening within the last ten years and no precancers detected in the last 20 years do not have to continue screening.

  • Women who have had a complete hysterectomy (not related to a precancerous or cancerous diagnosis) may stop PAP tests.

Remember that most insurance providers will completely cover the cost of cervical screenings as part of the preventative care initiative.

Tips for Reducing Your Risk of Cervical Cancer

Since HPV is a leading cause of cervical cancer, it is possible to reduce your risk of contracting it, therefore reducing your risk of cervical cancer. Here are some tips you can incorporate into your daily life to help reduce your chances of this disease.

Use Condoms

The use of condoms during intercourse can reduce your risk of getting an HPV infection. Remember, HPV can be transmitted simply by skin-to-skin contact, so a condom does not fully protect against it.

Test In Between Sexual Partners

Since most people are likely exposed to HPV at some point during their lives, it's important to test between sexual partners to ensure that you have not contracted an STI.

Consider an HPV Vaccine

Three vaccines are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent HPV infection. They include Gardasil®, Gardasil® 9, and Cervarix. Each vaccine is designed to protect against new HPV infections. Not only can this help reduce your risk of cervical cancer, but HPV is also linked to other cancers, such as oral and throat cancer, and these vaccines can help prevent those as well. Remember, even if you get the vaccine, you should still follow the above-mentioned PAP guidelines.

Currently, the HPV vaccine is recommended for 11-12-year-olds (male and female). However, older patients can also receive the vaccine. For young people who weren't vaccinated before 15, the HPV vaccination is still recommended up to age 26. You may need three doses if you are older when you get the vaccine.

If you’re older than 26, you may still get the vaccine, but, likely, you've already come in contact with HPV. Your doctor can provide more information about if the vaccine is right for you.

Taking the Right Steps to Protect Your Health

The cervical cancer doctors at Gynecologic Cancer Institute of Chicago, a division of Affiliated Oncologists, provide exceptional care for women with gynecological cancers. If you receive a cervical cancer diagnosis, we are here to provide the personalized cervical cancer treatment plan you deserve. We can also offer a second opinion. Our gynecologic oncologists can review a recommended plan with you, whether you’ve already had surgery or not. You can request an appointment at our Downers Grove or Oak Lawn, Illinois, locations.

Categories: Gynecologic Cancers