January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. I recently spoke with Lois M. Ramondetta, M.D., professor in MD Anderson's Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, to find out what we need to know about cervical cancer.
Here's what she had to say.
What causes cervical cancer?
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, is passed on through genital contact. The American Cancer Society says about 80% of men and women who have had sex will be exposed to HPV at some point.
Usually, the body's immune system gets rid of the virus, and most people never know they have it. However, those who don't get cervical cancer screening or receive inadequate treatment are more likely to develop cervical cancer.
Is cervical cancer preventable?
Yes, you can prevent most cervical cancers by getting the HPV vaccine before you have any sexual contact.
You can also avoid HPV, which makes you more likely to get cervical cancer, by limiting your number of sexual partners and by continuously practicing safe, protected sex.
How important is it for youth to get the HPV vaccine? What's the recommended age for getting the vaccine?
I can't encourage people enough to get the vaccine, girls and boys. My daughter got the vaccine and if I had a son he would get it, too.
HPV vaccines offer the greatest health benefits to individuals who receive all three doses before becoming sexually active.
MD Anderson recommends that girls receive the vaccine when they are ages 11 to 12. Parents may choose to vaccinate girls as young as age 9. Girls and women ages 13 to 26 may be vaccinated to catch up on a missed vaccine or to complete the vaccination series.
What are common symptoms of cervical cancer?
In its earliest stages, cervical cancer usually does not have symptoms. This is why regular Pap tests are so important.
When cervical cancer does have symptoms, they may include bleeding after sexual intercourse, bloody vaginal discharge, pain during intercourse and urinating more often. These symptoms do not always mean you have cervical cancer. However, it's important to discuss any symptoms with your doctor since they may signal other health problems.
Are some individuals more likely to develop cervical cancer than others?
People who don't get regular Pap tests are more likely to end up with cervical cancer only because if the disease isn't caught at an earlier stage or even before it turned into cancer.
Other cervical cancer risk factors may include smoking, multiple sexual partners, and having a sexually transmitted disease. Cervical cancer is most often found in women over 40 years old but can be seen in younger women as well.
How is cervical cancer diagnosed?
If you have symptoms or Pap test results that suggest precancerous cells or cervical cancer, your doctor may recommend getting a colposcopy or biopsy.
Liquid-based Pap tests are recommended every three years for women ages 21 to 29. Women ages 30 to 65 should get a liquid-based Pap test every three years or Pap and HPV testing every 5 years. Women age 65 and older or who have had a hysterectomy should talk to their doctor about whether they need to continue with cervical cancer screening.
If you can't afford a Pap test, there may be places in your community where you can get one for free or at a reduced cost. For information on where to get a free or low-cost Pap test, call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER.
What advice do you have for cervical cancer patients?
My advice for patients is to join together with other cervical cancer patients, survivors and advocates. The cervical cancer community doesn't have a voice. Patients are often uninsured, scared, and might feel alone. As a result, there isn't a big support community and there aren't big donors for research. We need money for cervical cancer research and prevention intervention projects.
People don't want to talk about cervical cancer because it's usually caused by a sexually transmitted disease, but the truth is, many women and men have HPV. It's very common.
Don't be afraid to speak up and recommend vaccinations for boys and girls to save women from dying from a totally preventable cancer.