Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be prevented, and, yet, many women fail to take the steps necessary to avoid it. Recent research shows that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer and that vaccines against HPV combined with regular cervical cancer screenings can prevent this deadly form of cancer.
Some women remain unconvinced that they should get the vaccines that guard against HPV—or that they should have their daughters and sons vaccinated against HPV. And, whether because of time, money, fear, lack of knowledge or other reasons, many women fail to get regular Pap and HPV tests, the screenings that can help prevent cervical cancer.
If you're not totally sure just how important HPV vaccinations and screenings are in preventing cervical cancer, watch “Cervivor TV Episode 11 : Sandy Fischer Lost Her Sister to Cervical Cancer." This cervical cancer video from Cervivor.org features Sandy Fischer, a New Jersey mother who was diagnosed with precancerous cells and was able to avoid cervical cancer because of her early screening. Unfortunately, her sister was not as lucky. Despite Fischer's urging, her sister did not get screened and died from the disease. Fischer is interviewed by Tamika Felder, who founded the nonprofit Tamika & Friends to raise awareness of cervical cancer and its link to HPV.
Here's some information all women should know about HPV and cervical cancer:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two HPV vaccines, called Gardasil and Ceravix, which can protect women against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers, HPV 16 and 18. Vaccination should be given before an infection occurs, ideally, before a girl becomes sexually active. The vaccines are given in three doses, and it's important for women to get all three doses for the best protection. Either vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11 and 12, as well as for girls and women ages 13 to 26 who did not receive any or all of the shots when they were younger. The vaccines can be given to girls as young as age nine.
In addition, Gardasil protects against the HPV strains most likely to cause genital warts and anal cancer, as well as vaginal and vulvar cancers. It is therefore also recommended for 11- and 12-year-old boys and males ages 13 through 26 who did not get any or all of the shots when they were younger.
Regular screening is the other crucial part of protection against cervical cancer. New screening guidelines recommend women get their first Pap test at age 21 and every three years after that. Women 30 and older may have a Pap every three years, but the preferred screening is that they undergo co-testing with a Pap and an HPV test every five years. Women may stop screening at age 65 if they have a history of adequate and normal screening in the previous 10 years.
Find out more about HPV at HealthyWomen.org.
Beth Battaglino, RN, is chief executive officer of HealthyWomen. She has worked in the health care industry for nearly 20 years, helping to define and drive public education programs on a broad range of women's health issues.