Cervical cancer was once a top cancer killer for women. That was before Pap testing —which can detect those early, precancerous changes in the female cervix — became an annual and standard part of gynecological exams for women.
Early screening has not eliminated the disease by any means. According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed every year, and about 4,000 women die from it annually.
While there are several things that can increase your risk of the disease, the number one cause of cervical cancer is human papilloma virus (HPV).
HPV and Cervical Cancer
“The connection with HPV infection is found in almost 100 percent of cervical cancers,” says obstetrician Sanaz Memarzadeh, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. However, if you do have HPV, there is no need to immediately jump to conclusions – “Only a fraction of those who have HPV will end up with cervical cancer,” adds Memarzadeh.
The virus may persist and cause changes in the cervix, or it may go away on its own, explains Memarzadeh. Thankfully, when dysplasia or other changes in the cervix are caught early, interventions can successfully stop the progression to cancer.
Unsurprisingly, any condition or habit that suppresses the immune system may increase the likelihood of a persistent HPV infection and subsequently, cervical cancer. The list includes (but is not limited to) increased exposure to a variety of HPV strains, having human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), being a transplant patient and smoking.
A link between cervical cancer and the use of birth control pills has been observed, but the reason isn’t entirely clear. It may be that the hormones in the pill change the composition of cells that line the cervix, making them more susceptible to any infections. Or, it may be attributed to a lack of condom use.
Finally, there is a genetic link: If your mother or sister had cervical cancer, you are at an increased risk for the disease.
Early Warning Signals
While the onset of cervical cancer can be silent, there are a few symptoms that indicate the disease and should never be ignored:
- Bleeding after sex: This is a warning sign of cervix inflammation. It could be caused by an infection or a polyp (i.e., abnormal growth of tissue on a mucous membrane), or it could be cervical cancer.
- Irregular bleeding: If you are experiencing bleeding between periods or a sudden change in your menstrual bleeding, don’t just write it off as perimenopause (i.e., the menopause transition stage that starts several years before menopause), since it may be an indication of something more serious.
- Vaginal discharge: Any unusual discharge — especially if it’s blood-tinged — should be brought to the attention of your doctor.
- The best way to prevent cervical cancer, or at least catch it at its earliest stages, is to get regular screenings that include co-testing with a Pap smear plus an HPV test. If the pap is abnormal and/or the HPV test comes back positive, the doctor will look more closely at the cervix and determine if there are changes that need to be treated.
- HPV vaccines are currently recommended for males and females ages 9 to 26. These take aim at some important HPV subtypes known to cause cancer. “Ideally, it is given prior to sexual activity, but since the vaccine covers four subtypes of HPV, it can still offer protection if you haven’t been exposed to all of them,” says Memarzadeh.
- For both men and women, keep in mind most people with HPV don’t know they are infected. While men cannot get cervical cancer, the virus does increase a man’s risk of genital cancers.
Talk to your doctor about whether you are a candidate for the vaccine or if you should consider having your loved one vaccinated. Studies have shown that vaccination is very effective at offering some protection against the targeted types of HPV.