Each year, more than 12,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, cervical cancer can be largely prevented and cured if diagnosed early.
Cervical cancer was once a leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. Fortunately, these rates have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years due to improved screening and prevention.
However, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, cervical cancer screening rates dropped as many women missed lifesaving tests. Therefore, it's essential for women who may be overdue for a cervical cancer screening to schedule an appointment with their doctor. Prevention of this disease revolves around a three-part strategy that includes vaccination, screening, and a personalized follow-up with a healthcare team for all abnormal results.
Human Papillomavirus Infection (HPV) is a highly prevalent virus, and up to 90% of individuals will have some exposure to HPV in their lifetime. Since most people who have the virus rarely show any symptoms, it can spread without individuals being aware. Regular screenings help identify women who have serious forms of HPV, or changes in the cells of the cervix requiring follow-up evaluation.
“While the HPV vaccine provides long-lasting protection against the strains of HPV most associated with cervical cancer, it does not protect against all types of HPV, and it doesn't prevent all forms of cervical cancer,” said Dr. Charles Hummel, assistant chief of service of OB/GYN with Kaiser Permanente Southern California. “That's why screening is essential to the overall strategy to eliminate cervical cancer and prevent its complications among women.”
The mainstay of screening involves cervical cytology (known as the “pap” test), targeted HPV DNA testing and primary HPV screening. Regardless of the type of cervical cancer screening you are due, it's important to stay on schedule.
Getting screened is especially important for Black and Brown women. According to the American Cancer Society, Hispanic women have the highest incidence rate of cervical cancer, followed by non-Hispanic Black women. In addition, Black women are more likely to die from the disease than women of other racial or ethnic groups.
“Because no current treatment is available to clear HPV, which causes more than 99% of cervical cancers, getting vaccinated is critically important. Prevention is the key to good health,” Dr. Hummel said. “At Kaiser Permanente, we recommend that children begin the HPV vaccine series as early as nine years of age and complete it by age 13. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that young adults through age 26 should get the vaccine. If you're older than 26, talk to your doctor about whether an HPV vaccine would still benefit you. HPV is transmitted through sexual contact, so the best time for someone to get the vaccine is well before they become sexually active.”
While the 12,000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer yearly is a 25% reduction from 20 years ago, it's still a significant number and one we can reduce, Dr. Hummel noted.
“That's why it's so important that women have access to the care they need and follow the recommendations for vaccination and screening," he said. "Doing so will significantly reduce one's chances of getting cervical cancer.”
Some of the symptoms of cervical cancer may include vaginal bleeding that isn't normal – such as between menstrual periods, after sex, or after menopause. Other symptoms include pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis or during sex. There may also be abnormal vaginal discharge.
“The three simple things you can do to prevent cervical cancer are get vaccinated, get screened, and contact your health care team with any concerns,” Dr. Hummel advised.
Kaiser Permanente offers valuable information about cervical cancer, screening, and prevention.