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Cervical Cancer Prevention

Each year in the U.S., nearly 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 die as a result.

Below are four things to know about cervical cancer, pap tests, and the human papillomavirus (HPV), according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

1. All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Each year in the U.S. nearly 13,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 die as a result.

2. HPV is common. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. Most sexually active individuals have HPV at some point. At any time, there are approximately 79 million people in the U.S. with HPV.

3. Cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent with regular screening tests and follow-up. There are two tests that can either help prevent cervical cancer or find it early: a Pap test and an HPV test. A Pap test looks for precancers and cell changes on the cervix. HPV tests find the virus and help healthcare providers know which women are at the highest risk for cervical cancer. A Pap/HPV co-test is recommended for women 30 and over.

4. It can take weeks, months, or years after exposure to HPV before symptoms develop or the virus is detected. This is why it is usually impossible to determine when or from whom HPV may have been contracted.

Vaccination

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States. So common that we often refer to it as the common cold of sex. Nearly all sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some people's bodies will be able to fight off the virus and some may not. Some people who have been exposed to HPV may never have a change in their pap smear, whereas others may have a normal pap smear for twenty years and then have an abnormal pap smear that detects HPV. This does not mean there has been a new exposure to the virus, which makes it hard to explain and understand.

Vaccination can help prevent HPV and the cases of cancer, genital warts, and other health problems it can cause. To work best, the vaccine must be given in two or three doses over a six-month period. It should also be given long before a young person is sexually active, according to the CDC. The CDC recommends it for all girls and boys ages 11 or 12.

In the United States, Gardasil 9 is the available vaccine to protect against HPV, including cervical and anal cancer, and genital warts. It targets HPV types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52 and 58.

The vaccine is safe. Testing has revealed no serious side effects, according to the NIH. The most common reactions, such as soreness or swelling at the injection site, are temporary.

Although the vaccine can prevent future HPV infections, it can't eliminate an existing HPV infection. And it is possible for someone to become infected with HPV the very first time he or she is sexually active, according to CDC. (Remember, most people who have HPV don't have symptoms.)

Though the vaccine is routinely given at ages 11 or 12, it can be safely given to children as young as 9, according to the FDA.

It also can be safely given through age 45. If your child needs catch-up vaccinations, speak to his or her healthcare provider.

Screening

Pap smears are screening for cervical cancer. Most of the time, pap smears are looking for pre-cancer changes of the cervix, called dysplasia. These pre-cancerous changes on the cervix happen before cervix cancer and can be treated before they progress to cervix cancer.

It's very important for women to have regular pap testing and HPV testing.

Screening recommendations include:

Women ages 21 - 24 - Every 3 years
Pap only testing

Women ages 30 - 65 - Every 5 years
Pap test with HPV screening

Women age 25 - 29 - Every 3 years
Pap testing (sometimes with HPV)

HPV is common. We don't know why certain women can clear HPV from their system. We do know that if they test positive, it's important to monitor changes to make sure the virus does get cleared and catch the changes before they progress into cancer.

Take a step toward cervical cancer prevention! Schedule your well-woman appointment with a pap test or make an appointment for your child to get vaccinated, contact the Crossing Rivers Health Clinic at 608.357.2500 or click here to make an appointment. If you have had an abnormal pap smear, the gynecology team at Crossing Rivers Health Center for Specialty Care encourages you to make an appointment. Meet Deborah Simon, Board-Certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist, and Jaime Peterson, Physician Assistant-Certified, Obstetrics and Gynecology, the gynecology team at Crossing Rivers Health Center for Specialty Care, and learn more about abnormal pap smears by clicking here. Treatment options are available. Together, we can determine the best option for you.