January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and serves as a reminder to all women to speak with their physicians about the risks of developing cervical cancer, what causes it, and what they can do to prevent it.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 12,820 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,210 will die from the disease in 2017. In Illinois alone, 520 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer. But cervical cancer is a highly preventable and treatable cancer, thanks to improved screening and vaccination.
“Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women. However, the death rate has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past 40 years thanks in large part to screening with the Pap test,” said Debbie Saslow, PhD, senior director, HPV Related and Women’s Cancers, Prevention and Early Detection, at the American Cancer Society. “Through regular screening with Pap and HPV tests, cervical cancer can often be found early and, in most circumstances, actually prevented.”
The American Cancer Society recommends that women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years and women aged 30 to 65 have a human papillomavirus (HPV) test and Pap test every five years.
“The HPV test finds HPV infections that can lead to cell changes and cancer,” Saslow said. “HPV infections are very common; most go away by themselves and don’t cause problems. The HPV test should be used along with a Pap test, or to help doctors decide how to treat women who have an abnormal Pap test.”
Women over age 65 who have had regular screenings with normal results should not be screened for cervical cancer. Women who have had their uterus and cervix removed in a hysterectomy and have no history of cervical cancer or pre-cancer should not be screened.
In addition to cervical cancer screening, Saslow said cervical cancer cases in the U.S. could be prevented with HPV vaccination.
“The American Cancer Society recommends routine HPV vaccination should be started at age 11 or 12 for both girls and boys, and can be started as early as age 9,” Saslow said. “Most cervical cancers, as well as several other cancers, are caused by HPV. HPV vaccination will prevent 90% of cervical cancers and a total of 28,500 cancers per year.”
“The opportunity to prevent death and suffering from cervical cancer is real,” Saslow said. “Screening can find changes in the cervix before they turn into cancer, and vaccination can prevent most cervical cancers. If we can apply what we know today, we can expect to see a day when cervical cancer is virtually eliminated.”