Though there have been vast improvements in vaccines, there is still a lot of information women need to know about cervical cancer. Education on the disease can help with prevention and treatment as well as help with efforts to rid cervical cancer from existence. Continue reading below to learn about vaccinations, screening, and treatment for cervical cancer.
Once the leading cause of cancer death among women in the U.S., cervical cancer is now less of a threat, thanks to significant advances in vaccination, screening and treatment. In fact, the number of women diagnosed with invasive disease (cancer that has spread beyond the surface of the cervix) has declined over the past few decades and continues to drop. This past year, the World Health Organization launched a global initiative to eliminate cervical cancer once and for all. In recognition of Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, take steps to make this goal a reality by getting up to speed on the latest cervical cancer prevention strategies and treatment options.
Vaccination is key
We know that almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV. We also know that the HPV vaccine protects against the two strains of the virus that cause 70% of these cancers (as well as five other strains linked with HPV-associated cancers, including cancers of the head and neck, penis, vulva and anus). There’s no question that vaccination is the No. 1 strategy to eliminate cervical cancer, yet many people still are not getting immunized. Here are some important points to share with those who may be on the fence about vaccination:
Sexual contact isn’t the only way HPV gets transmitted. In fact, there are more than 200 types of HPV — only 40 of these tend to affect the genitals — so just about everyone who has any type of physical contact with another person is exposed. Like all vaccines used in the U.S., the HPV vaccine has undergone rigorous safety testing and continues to be monitored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The CDC recommends that girls and boys are vaccinated at ages 11 or 12. They should receive two doses of the HPV vaccine at least six months apart. Teens and young adults ages 15 to 26 who have not been vaccinated will need three doses of the vaccine for it to be most effective. As of 2018, adults up to age 45 who have not been vaccinated can now receive the HPV vaccine; three doses are also required for this age group.
Screening Helps Ensure Early Detection
Prevention is the gold standard to reduce your risk for cervical cancer. However, vaccination isn’t 100% effective, and many people in the U.S. haven’t been vaccinated at all. So screening is still necessary to help ensure early detection. Remember that the earlier cervical cancer is found, the easier it is to treat. Here are some key takeaways from the screening recommendations updated last year by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF): Cervical cancer screening can be done using a Pap smear and/or the HPV test, depending on a woman’s age and health history.
The USPSTF does not recommend cervical cancer screening for women ages 21 and younger. The risk of cervical cancer in this age group is too small to justify it. Women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap smear every three years to test for abnormal cell changes in the cervix; these women do not require routine HPV testing. Women ages 30 to 65 may choose to have the HPV test or a combination of both tests every five years. Screening is no longer recommended for women ages 65 and older who have had normal test results in the past and have not been treated for cervical cancer or precancer. Talk to your doctor about the best screening option for you. Be sure to mention any abnormal symptoms, including pain or bleeding after sex, which can be a sign of cervical cancer.
Advances in Treatment
As more women adhere to the prevention and screening recommendations above, most cervical cancers are diagnosed in the early stages and can be cured with surgery or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Unfortunately, some women are still diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer — disease that has metastasized or spread to other parts of the body. Thanks to advances in treatment options, even those women diagnosed with late-stage or recurrent cancer now have targeted therapies available in addition to traditional chemotherapy that can help them live longer and better. These novel treatments include:
Biologic agents — either drugs or antibodies — designed to target and cut off the blood supply to cancer cells, limiting their growth. These can be used with or without other chemotherapy. Immunotherapy treatments that trigger the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells. Clinical trials are ongoing to investigate new therapies for cervical cancer.