January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Cervical cancer is most frequently diagnosed in women between the ages of 35 and 44 with the average age at diagnosis being 50. It rarely develops in women younger than 20. Many older women do not realize that the risk of developing cervical cancer is still present as they age.
According to the CDC, long-lasting infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is a common virus that is passed from one person to another during sex. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will get cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screening tests at age 21 the HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer. When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
Cervical cancer begins when healthy cells in the cervix develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell’s DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do.
Healthy cells grow and multiply at a set rate, eventually dying at a set time. The mutations tell the cells to grow and multiply out of control, and they don’t die. The accumulating abnormal cells form a mass (tumor). Cancer cells invade nearby tissues and can break off from a tumor to spread (metastasize) elsewhere in the body.
It isn’t clear what causes cervical cancer, but it’s certain that HPV plays a role. HPV is very common, and most people with the virus never develop cancer. This means other factors — such as your environment or your lifestyle choices — also determine whether you’ll develop cervical cancer.
The type of cervical cancer that you have helps determine your prognosis and treatment. The main types of cervical cancer are:
- Squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) lining the outer part of the cervix, which projects into the vagina. Most cervical cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
- Adenocarcinoma. This type of cervical cancer begins in the column-shaped glandular cells that line the cervical canal.
Sometimes, both types of cells are involved in cervical cancer. Very rarely, cancer occurs in other cells in the cervix.
Many sexual partners. The greater your number of sexual partners — and the greater your partner’s number of sexual partners — the greater your chance of acquiring HPV.
Early sexual activity. Having sex at an early age increases your risk of HPV.
Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Having other STIs — such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV/AIDS — increases your risk of HPV.
A weakened immune system. You may be more likely to develop cervical cancer if your immune system is weakened by another health condition and you have HPV.
Smoking. Smoking is associated with squamous cell cervical cancer.
Exposure to miscarriage prevention drug. If your mother took a drug called diethylstilbestrol (DES) while pregnant in the 1950s, you may have an increased risk of a certain type of cervical cancer called clear cell adenocarcinoma.
Ask your doctor about the HPV vaccine. Receiving a vaccination to prevent HPV infection may reduce your risk of cervical cancer and other HPV-related cancers. Ask your doctor whether an HPV vaccine is appropriate for you.
The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers.
- HPV vaccination is recommended for preteens aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given starting at age 9.
- HPV vaccine also is recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if they are not vaccinated already.
- HPV vaccination is not recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults age 27 through 45 years who are not already vaccinated may decide to get the HPV vaccine after speaking with their doctor about their risk for new HPV infections and the possible benefits of vaccination. HPV vaccination in this age range provides less benefit, as more people have already been exposed to HPV.If vaccination is started before age 15, a two-dose schedule is recommended, with the doses given 6 to 12 months apart. For people who start the series after their 15th birthday, the vaccine is given in a series of three shots. HPV vaccination prevents new HPV infections, but does not treat existing infections or diseases. This is why the HPV vaccine works best when given before any exposure to HPV. You should get screened for cervical cancer regularly, even if you received an HPV vaccine.
Have routine Pap tests.Pap tests can detect precancerous conditions of the cervix, so they can be monitored or treated in order to prevent cervical cancer. Most medical organizations suggest beginning routine Pap tests at age 21 and repeating them every few years.
Practice safe sex. Reduce your risk of cervical cancer by taking measures to prevent sexually transmitted infections, such as using a condom every time you have sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
Don’t smoke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit.
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