In 2017, it is estimated that 12,820 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed in the United States and 4,210 died of this disease.1 But did you know that cervical cancer can be prevented? With regular screening tests, appropriate follow-up care, and a vaccine to prevent infection, cervical cancer is highly preventable. It also can be cured when found early and treated.
Let’s back up and discuss what causes cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. HPV is so common that most people get it at some time in their lives. In fact, nearly 80 million people – about one in four – are currently infected in the United States. About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year. Most HPV infections (9 out of 10) go away by themselves within two years.2 But HPV infections will sometimes last longer and can cause numerous cancers, including cervical cancer. It usually causes no symptoms, and for most women, HPV will go away on its own. However, if it does not, there is a chance that over time it may cause cervical cancer.
The most important thing you can do to help prevent cervical cancer is to have regular screening tests starting at age 21. Two screening tests are available: the Pap test, which looks for precancers or cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately; and the HPV test, which looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. The Pap test is one of the most reliable and effective cancer screening tests available. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may say you can wait three years until your next test. Cervical cancer is usually a slow-growing cancer; therefore, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years following a normal Pap test is very low.
In South Dakota, a program is available to cover the cost of the office visit and Pap test for low income women. The All Women Count! Program pays for cervical and breast cancer screenings for women between the ages of 30-64 who meet income guidelines. Learn more about the All Women Count! Program by calling 1-800-738-2301 or visiting http://getscreened.sd.gov/count/.
In addition to receiving regular screening tests, there is a vaccine available to protect against the types of HPV that most often cause cervical cancer. The HPV vaccine is recommended for preteens (both boys and girls) aged 11 to 12 years, but can be given as early as age 9 and until age 26. The HPV vaccine is available to eligible adolescents through the Vaccines for Children Program in South Dakota. To learn more about the VFC program, visit http://doh.sd.gov/family/childhood/immunization/.
Cervical cancer is usually a slow-growing cancer that can be detected with regular Pap tests. In addition, since cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV infection, it is important to get adolescents vaccinated at the recommended age to receive the most benefit. With programs available to cover the cost of screening and vaccination, all women can be protected from cervical cancer.
1. SEER Cancer Stat Facts: Cervical Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/cervix.html
2. HPV Vaccines: Vaccinating Your Preteen or Teen. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/vaccine.html