James Pavelka MD, a gynecologic oncologist with Tristate Gynecologic Oncology, discusses how women can protect themselves and their daughters from cervical cancer.
Cervical Cancer: Who’s At Risk?
“Cervical cancer – in contrast to some other cancers – is primarily a cancer of younger women,” Dr. Pavelka explains. “The peak incidence is in the 30s, 40s, and early 50s.”
The risk factors for cervical cancer relate to exposure to a particular sexually transmitted virus called Human Papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV (learn more).
“It should be noted that although HPV is a sexually transmitted virus … it’s everywhere,” he says. “Eighty percent of women who have ever had sex have been exposed to HPV.”
In fact, most women who have been exposed to HPV, clear the virus on their own. “Their immune system detects the presence of the virus, clears the virus and they have no infection, no problems, no long-term issues, whatsoever,” he says.
However, some women don’t fight off the virus. “The trick is figuring out who those women are, and following them appropriately.”
Other risk factors for developing cervical cancer include:
- Having multiple sexual partners
- Having a history of sexually transmitted infections
Screening Guidelines and Reducing Your Risk
While cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in American women, Dr. Pavelka points out that there are several ways to reduce your risk or catch it early.
Regular Pap smears are critical for early detection. “We used to recommend screening at age 18. We have pushed that to age 21,” he says. “Screening is with the form of a Pap smear every three years from age 21 to age 35 and three to five year intervals thereafter, provided normal results.”
If you are have abnormal Pap smear results, guidelines can vary. “At times, we will still go back to the annual Pap,” Dr. Pavelka says.
However, even though current screening guidelines do not suggest annual Pap smears, Dr. Pavelka still recommends annual gynecology appointments. “Cervical cancer is not the only thing we screen for during the annual visit.”
Other ways to reduce your risk for developing cervical cancer include:
- Not smoking
- Using condoms with sexual contact
- Receiving the HPV vaccination
HPV Vaccine Proven to Protect Against Cervical Cancer
“The HPV vaccine is effective against two of the most oncogenic types of HPV – the two of the types that are most likely to evolve into cancer,” Dr. Pavelka explains.
While many parents are concerned that having their daughters receive the HPV vaccination will encourage sexual promiscuity, Dr. Pavelka points out that there is good evidence against this theory.
What are the Symptoms of Cervical Cancer?
Most cervical cancer is discovered when it’s asymptomatic; however, as a cancerous tumor increases on the cervix, symptoms may develop. These include:
- Irregular bleeding between periods
- Bleeding immediately following sexual intercourse
- Pelvic pain
- Back pain
- Leg pain or swelling
Cervical Cancer: What if I’m Diagnosed?
When a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer, it is critical that she meet with a gynecologic oncologist. “People in the gynecologic oncology field are specially trained for the more rigorous surgery required to cure cervical cancer,” Dr. Pavelka points out.
Like most other adult cancers, the success rate of being cured is linked to the stage of their diagnosis. “All of our efforts, really, when it comes to cervical cancer, are early detection, prevention and prompt treatment with the earliest stage of the disease whenever possible,” he explains.