January has been designated as Cervical Health Awareness Month by the US Congress, and it’s important to talk about why this matters and what this month can mean for you.
Every year, 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed. This is a heartbreaking number when we have such good methods of preventing cervical cancer and treating earlier abnormalities before they can progress to invasive cancer. This is very much unlike ovarian cancer, where good screening tools don’t exist and many people are diagnosed in later stages.
Most cancers of the cervix are linked to infection with certain high-risk strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV). This virus is extremely common, with 80 percent of sexually active people having it at some point in their lives.
With HPV being so prevalent, vaccination is truly the key to avoid getting infected with it and eventually decreasing the number of people infected who can spread it. HPV vaccines are extremely well-studied and safe, with over 250 million doses being given worldwide without any safety signals or serious adverse events being reported. Unfortunately, a large amount of misinformation about this vaccine is circulating, so if you have questions before you or your child gets the vaccine, please be sure to ask your healthcare provider directly.
The recommended age for receiving the HPV vaccines is between ages 11 to 12 – and yes, to both boys and girls! The goal is to complete the series prior to sexual activity to prevent HPV infection, but it’s important to know these vaccines are FDA approved up to age 45.
HPV can spread via any sexual contact, including oral sex. This is why aside from vaccination safe sex practices, such as using condoms or dental dams, is so important.
Another important way to prevent cervical cancer is to stay on top of your cervical cancer screening via pap smears and HPV testing. Pap tests are now recommended to start at age 21, and the frequency of screening depends on your age, HPV status, and history of certain medical conditions or history of abnormal pap smears. You can find the current recommended screening frequency here.
Why not annual screening, since it seems like this would be better in catching more cancer cases? The truth is studies have shown screening annually does not improve cancer diagnosis rates or outcomes and actually leads to harms such as extra procedures, over-diagnosis of conditions that would regress on their own, and added stress.
If you aren’t sure if you are up-to-date with your HPV vaccination or pap screening, please use this as your sign to get in touch with your healthcare provider today! While we are definitely very focused on COVID right now, it’s still extremely important we not forget about other ways to stay healthy too.
- 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year.
- HPV vaccination and safe sex practices are the best way to prevent cervical cancer.
- We might be in a pandemic, but it’s important not to forget your cervical cancer screening!