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Taking the scare factor out of cervical cancer

HPV is a very common virus; in fact, 50 to 80 percent of sexually active adults have been exposed to it at some point in their lifetime. Between 25 and 50 percent of women less than 25 years old have already been infected with HPV.

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The "C" word... Cancer — who doesn't dread hearing that word when it comes to our health or the wellbeing of someone we love?

Few words can trigger as much worry and fear. However, knowledge can be a powerful antidote to that anxiety and a great motivator for taking preventive measures as well.

So in the interest of empowering women about a cancer that can change their lives in more ways than one, let's talk about cervical cancer. We can start by discussing its pre-cancerous condition, called cervical dysplasia.

More than 700,000 cases of severe dysplasia in the United States require treatment every year. Many of those cases occur in women during their childbearing years.

While current treatment of severe dysplasia is highly successful at preventing cervical cancer, it can also impact a woman's fertility and her ability to carry pregnancies full term.

When it comes to cervical cancer, there are two important goals: protecting women's reproductive health during preventive treatments and saving lives. Better understanding what causes this cancer, how to screen for it, and how to prevent it helps to achieve both goals.

What causes cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer is caused by the human papilloma virus. Most often called HPV, this virus is transmitted during sexual activity, not only intercourse but other types of intimate contact as well.

HPV is a very common virus; in fact, 50 to 80 percent of sexually active adults have been exposed to it at some point in their lifetime. Between 25 and 50 percent of women less than 25 years old have already been infected with HPV.

Most new infections occur in young women and men ages 15 to 24. Fortunately, more than 90 percent of the time, our body's immune system gets rid of the virus without treatment. In some instances, an HPV-caused infection develops, doesn't go away, and causes cervical cancer in some women.

Medical science has yet to discover why some women develop cervical cancer following an HPV infection and others do not. It is known that certain factors put some women at a higher risk. While these factors increase the risk of cervical cancer, many women have no identifiable risk factor other than HPV:

• Sexual activity at an early age

• Tobacco use (smoking weakens the body's immune system)

• Multiple sexual partners

• Limited or no pelvic exams or Pap smear screenings

How do doctors screen for cervical cancer?

When cervical cancer is in its early stages, the changes associated with cervical dysplasia are microscopic so women do not notice any symptoms. However, pap smears and biopsies during regular pelvic exams can detect those changes. That is why screenings are such an important part of prevention measures.

Pap smears should begin at age 21 and continue every two or three years until age 30. A new HPV screening detects the presence of the high-risk strains of HPV. It is now recommended along with a Pap for women aged 30 and older every three to five years.

National experts are still deciding how to best use the HPV test as a standalone screening for cervical cancer. Therefore, it is important for women to talk with their personal health provider about which screening strategy is right for them.

What else can women do to prevent cervical cancer?

Fortunately, catching cervical cancer in its earliest and most treatable stages is possible through regular screenings. Better yet, we can do more to prevent this cancer before it even gets started with HPV vaccinations that target the highest risk strains — HPV 16 and 18. Two vaccines are available today and both are nearly 100 percent effective at preventing these strains of HPV infections.

Ideally the vaccinations are given before any exposure to HPV. Therefore, doctors and other health experts recommend that girls and boys receive the vaccines. This is an important vaccination for both genders because of how HPV is transmitted and it can also cause penile, head, neck and anal cancers.

Pediatricians typically administer HPV vaccinations to preteens starting around age 11 or 12. Adults who are not immunized and at risk can ask their primary care provider or women's health specialist about the vaccine.

Did you know these important facts?

  • HPV immunity is achieved through three shots given over six months Studied in more than 40,000 patients, the HPV vaccination has proven to be very safe - people cannot get HPV from vaccines
  • The most common side effect is discomfort and other local symptoms at injection point
  • This vaccination will also protect women who have already had pre-cancerous dysplasia from future episodes
  • Even if everyone who should get HPV vaccines did so, cervical screenings are still an important tool for maintaining overall health