Health Matters: Cervical Cancer is Preventable
For years, cervical cancer was a leading cause of death among women. But now, thanks to a better understanding of what causes this cancer and with the development of effective screening tools, death rates from cervical cancer have dropped dramatically. Given our current medical technology, the biggest barrier in preventing cervical cancer is education—we must teach people to care for themselves. Because January is cervical cancer awareness month, this seemed like the perfect time to do so. In a nutshell, you can prevent cervical cancer with three simple steps.
- Get the HPV vaccine
- Boost your immune system (including eating nutritious meals, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking)
- Practice safe sex
Cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that also causes genital warts as well as cancers of the vulva, anus, penis and throat. There are more than 100 strains of HPV and most of them are harmless, but 14 are considered cancer-causing.
If you are a healthy adult with a normal immune system, even if you are infected with one of the cancer-causing strains, you will most likely clear the virus within a year or two of the initial infection, and most pre-cancerous lesions resolve spontaneously. Even people who do not clear the virus often have excellent prognoses, because cervical cancer is a slow-growing and highly treatable cancer. It takes 15 to 20 years for cervical cancer to develop in women with normal immune systems and 5 to 10 years in women with weakened immune systems.
There are a few increased risk factors for cervical cancer, including smoking, giving birth to more than three children, using birth control for more than five years, having several sexual partners, and having medical conditions that weaken the immune system.
Ideally, children receive the HPV vaccine (Gardasil 9) before they become sexually active. However, adults can also receive the vaccine, certainly into their mid-20s. In fact, in October 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for adults up to age 45.
One of the best ways to stay healthy, whether it’s preventing cervical cancer or other medical conditions, is to check in with your doctor, certified nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner. As a women’s health nurse practitioner, I remind my patients to get annual well-woman exams and to be sure they get pap smears every three years.
We used to recommend an annual pap smear from the time women became sexually active until they died. Now we know that HPV causes cervical cancer and that most people will clear the virus before it does any long-term damage, so paps are recommended every three years from the age of 21 through the age of 65 unless there are signs of cancer.
However, women should still see their medical provider every year. It’s an important time to take stock and identify physical and/or emotional problems before they progress. During well-woman exams, I ask about how patients are sleeping, eating, exercising, and feeling. I ask whether they feel safe at home and whether they’re experiencing pain that interferes with having sex. I ask about their menstrual cycle. I examine their bodies—breasts, vagina, uterus and ovaries to make sure their reproductive organs are healthy. Once women are no longer of childbearing age, we begin discussing menopause and all the changes that come with it. Knowledge is power—I like to empower my patients.
If you haven’t seen your medical provider within the past year, consider making an appointment. We are here to help you stay healthy and enjoy life.
Carolyn Wyatt is a women’s health nurse practitioner at Care for Her, a department of MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.