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This year make a resolution for better health by getting screened for cervical cancer. Cervical cancer currently accounts for a third of all gynecologic cancers and related deaths in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. But through regular screenings it can be prevented entirely or caught and treated early enough to save your life. To learn more about this disease and why regular screenings are important, we spoke with board-certified gynecologic oncologist Nathalie Dauphin McKenzie, MD.
How Do You Get Cervical Cancer?
“The most common cause of cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus, or HPV,” explains Dr. McKenzie. “In fact, all other risk factors for developing it are related to exposure to HPV or the inability of your body to fight it off naturally. Currently, nearly a quarter of the population of the U.S. is infected with one form or another of HPV. It’s incredibly common and it’s estimated that 14 million more people will be infected this year alone.”
Dr. McKenzie stresses that while it’s extremely common, not all women who contract HPV will develop cervical cancer.
“There are two strains of HPV that we find to be primarily responsible for cervical cancer, subtypes 16 and 18. Most healthy adults can fight off the infection over time but for those over 30 it can become harder to do and lead to a persistent or chronic infection which is why it’s so important to have regular screenings.”
Cervical Cancer Prevention
The two ways of preventing cervical cancer are by being vaccinated against HPV and by getting regular screenings.
“Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine in 2006 we’ve seen dramatic declines in the rates of infection, and as a result, the number of cases of cervical cancer,” says Dr. McKenzie. “One study in particular found a 29 percent decrease in cervical cancer rates between 2011 and 2014. And over time we’re likely to see the rates continue to drop as more and more people get vaccinated.”
Even with vaccination, though, Dr. McKenzie still recommends getting regular Pap smears to test for any abnormal cells which indicate the early stages of cervical cancer. “Vaccines aren’t an absolute guarantee against any disease, but the current one, Gardasil 9, is very effective in preventing infection of the 9 subtypes that it was designed to protect against, including subtypes 16 and 18. Even so, you should have regular screenings to be sure your cervix is healthy.”
Recently the vaccine guidelines were changed to include adults aged 27 to 45, a change from the previous recommendation of children over the age of nine up to adults age 26.
“It’s important for adults in this age range to know that they’re now recommended to get the vaccination as a means of reducing the number of HPV cases and therefore the number of cervical cancer cases.”
Schedule Your Screenings
The American Cancer Society (ACS), the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP), and the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) have now published new, evidence-based guidelines that will change how we screen for cervical cancer:
- Screening should begin at age 21 years.
- Pap smear alone is recommended every 3 years for women 21-29 years of age.
- For women 30-65 years of age, co-testing (pap smear + HPV testing) every 5 years is recommended. If HPV testing is not available, Pap smear alone should be continued every 3 years.
- Women who have a history of abnormal Pap smears or cervical cancer should be managed individually, case-by-case.