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Cervical cancer and HPV: Get the facts

Focused on Health - January 2014

by Adelina Espat

Did you know? Cervical cancer was once the leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States.  Now, it’s one of the most preventable cancers.cervical cancer

Because of the Pap test, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) test and vaccine, women today have options to dramatically reduce their risks for this disease.

Cervical cancer occurs when cells in the cervix (the part of the womb, or uterus, which opens to the vagina) grow beyond control. This growth can damage nearby tissue and stop a woman’s organs from functioning normally.

Protect yourself from HPV

HPV, a sexually transmitted disease, causes most cervical cancers. This virus is present in more than 99% of cases.

About 75% of men and women who have sex will develop HPV. Most people will never know they have the virus. And a person’s immune system usually clears it up before the virus is detected. Only a small number of HPV cases actually lead to cervical cancer.

Your best bet to reduce your risk of HPV is to:

  • Limit your number of sexual partners
  • Always practice safe sex by always using a condom or other barrier method
  • Whether you’re male or female, get the HPV vaccine before age 26

Learn about the HPV vaccinecancer research

The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer, precancerous cervical lesions and genital warts. It may also prevent oral, anal and penile cancers.

The vaccine is approved for males and females age nine to 26. MD Anderson advises that girls and boys receive the vaccine at age 11 to 12.  

It’s important to get the vaccine at a young age because it works best in those who’ve never had HPV.

Get regular cancer screening exams

The Pap test is a cancer screening exam for women. It’s usually done when you have no cancer symptoms.

Getting regular Pap tests helps your doctor find and treat pre-cancers in your cervix before they turn into cancer.

The cervical cancer screening plan below is for those at average risk and applies to most women.

Age 21 to 29

  • Pap test every three years

Age 30 to 64

  • Pap test and HPV test every five years

Age 65 and older

  • If you’ve had no suspicious Pap test or HPV test results in the past 10 years, speak with your doctor about whether you should continue screening.

If you’re younger than age 30, you don’t need an HPV test because your immune system is more likely to clear the virus on its own. (Remember: You should still get the vaccine for cancer prevention). But if your Pap test results are unclear, your doctor may suggest an HPV test to find out if follow-up care is needed.

If you’ve received the HPV vaccine, you still need regular Pap tests and, possibly, HPV tests. That’s because the vaccine doesn’t protect your body from all types of HPV.

Learn about exams for women at increased risk

cervical cancer friendsWomen at increased risk for cervical cancer have a higher chance of developing the disease.

Being at increased risk doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer. But you may need to start screening exams at an earlier age, get additional tests or be tested more often.

You may be at increased risk if you have or had a:

  • History of severe cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer)
  • Persistent HPV infection before or after age 30
  • Immune system that does not function properly (such as organ transplant recipients and those taking medications to suppress their immune system)
  • Been infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES) exposure before birth

Print and share MD Anderson’s cervical cancer screening chart with your doctor if you suspect you may be at increased risk.

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT: Schedule your cervical cancer screening exam at 
MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center. Call 713-745-8040 for your appointment.  

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center