Cervical Cancer Awareness Month
January 3, 2024
This January, in observance of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, KBFPC is sharing a series of informational posts about cervical cancer, HPV, and screening methods available at the clinic. We hope to broaden people’s understanding of the risk of cervical cancer and available prevention methods, and provide information that can help you protect yourself and your partners.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer is the development of cancerous cells on the cervix (the opening between the vagina and uterus.) Anyone with a cervix is at risk for cervical cancer, and it can be serious.
Each year in the U.S. about 11,500 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed, mostly in people over age 30 and with a greater impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities due to societal barriers to accessing healthcare. There are also higher rates of cervical cancer in countries with less access to vaccination and reproductive health services.
Luckily, cervical cancer is now easier to detect early thanks to available screening tools like Pap smear tests and the fact that it usually develops more slowly than other cancers, often over multiple years. It is also treatable if caught early.
Cervical cancer is caused by HPV (human papillomavirus), a viral infection most commonly transmitted via sexual contact. This means cervical cancer is not hereditary or related to other cancers, so you’re not more or less likely to develop it if one of your relatives had it and there are no genetic markers. Getting vaccinated early against HPV and regular screening tests are your best tools to fight cervical cancer!
What is HPV?
Human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is a group of viruses transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. It is the same virus that causes a wart on someone’s hands or feet, but the HPV your doctor or midwife may be concerned about is spread via sexual activity.
HPV is VERY common: most people who are sexually active acquire some type of HPV during their lifetime, although most often the body’s immune system will clear the infection before it causes harm.
Over time, however, HPV infection can develop into cancer: 99% of cervical cancers are caused by an HPV infection. Although any of the 100+ strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer, the most high-risk strains are #16 and #18.
What can you do to protect yourself and your partners? Two things:
- Get vaccinated! Luckily, there is a vaccine for HPV called Gardasil. It is recommended that everyone get the HPV vaccine as part of childhood immunizations, since it is most effective if received between ages 9-12. However, it is still recommended up to age 21 for men and 26 for women: even if someone has had sex, it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
- Get screened! Screening for HPV and regular Pap tests are an important part of routine healthcare for anyone with a cervix. Regular screenings mean your healthcare provider can catch infections early and help you manage them appropriately. At this point, the easiest way to test for HPV infection is via cervical screening, so it’s extra important to stay up to date on testing that is available to you.
When should I get tested?
Your first cervical cancer screening will generally be at age 21, unless you’ve had any symptoms earlier like unexpected vaginal bleeding. Your provider will recommend the frequency of regular testing between 1, 3, or 5 years depending on your age, risk factors, and personal preference.
Screening may involve two tests that can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early: an HPV test looks for the virus that can cause cell changes on the cervix, and a Pap test (or “Pap smear”) looks for precancers, which are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
These tests are often performed together and are collected during a pelvic exam. After a speculum is placed in the vagina with lubricating jelly, your provider will use a soft silicone brush to swab the cervix. The collected cervical cells will be analyzed in a lab, and your provider will share your results and next steps.
Most people won’t feel the Pap brush, but some people might feel a slight cramp. If you’re concerned about discomfort during the exam, ask your provider about these possible options: using a plastic speculum in the smallest size possible, inserting the speculum yourself (with prior instruction & practice), using warmed gel, a prescription for anti-anxiety medication, breathing exercises or a heating pad on the lower abdomen for relaxation, or having a trusted friend or family member with you at your visit.
What do my results mean?
After your cervical cancer screening labs are complete, your provider will share the results which may include two parts:
An HPV test will come back either Positive or Negative for the presence of human papillomavirus and will include the finding of any strains that are high-risk for causing cervical cancer.
A Pap test reports the presence of any pre-cancerous cells, and your results could be Normal, Abnormal (Unknown Grade), Abnormal (Low Grade), or Abnormal (High Grade). If abnormal, your provider may recommend diagnostic testing for more information, or treatment of cancerous cells.
Recommendations for your next testing will depend on your age, risk factors, previous results, and your provider’s analysis of one or both test results to determine how likely you are to develop cervical cancer cells in the next five years. If slightly more likely for you, they’ll recommend repeat testing in 1-3 years; if less likely for you, they’ll probably recommend your next test in 5 years.
Remember: getting vaccinated for HPV and getting regular screenings are the best way to protect yourself and your partners against cervical cancer!