January is cervical cancer awareness month. Every year more than 12,000 women in the United States get cervical cancer, and about 4,000 die from it. Fortunately, cervical cancer can often be prevented.
The Pap Test
“Cervical cancer was once one of the most common cancers affecting women in the United States, but the incidence and deaths have dropped dramatically since the introduction of the Papanicolau (Pap) smear ,” says Dr. Carolyn Runowicz, a gynecologic oncologist and executive associate dean for academic affairs at Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
The Pap smear is a simple screening test in which a sample of cervical cells is examined under a microscope for the presence of precancerous or cancerous cells. Women should start getting Pap tests at age 21.
It is also recommended that women get co-tested for HPV after age 30.
Almost all cervical cancers are caused by a type of HPV (human papillomavirus), a very common infection that can be passed from one person to another during sex. Most HPV infections spontaneously resolve. The problem is the persistent high risk HPV infections—those that don’t go away.
It’s estimated that about 79 million Americans have HPV, and many don’t know they’re infected. Most people with HPV never develop symptoms, and in most cases the infections go away by themselves. But when they don’t, they can cause several types of cancers in both men and women including cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, throat, tongue, tonsils and penis.
“The good news is that we have vaccines against the types of HPV that cause most cervical cancers and genital warts” says Dr. Juana Montero, a gynecologist at FIU Health, the College of Medicine’s faculty group practice.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends preteen girls and boys get the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12. Women up to age 26 and men up to age 21 can still get the vaccine.
Preventing HPV can help prevent cervical cancer, and the best way to prevent HPV is to get vaccinated, practice safe sex, limit your number of sexual partners and don’t smoke.