Cervical Cancer: The Preventable Gynecologic Cancer
Most cases of cervical cancer are easily preventable with regular screening tests and follow-up. It also is highly curable when found and treated early. Now vaccines are available to protect against the most common cause of cervical cancer.
All women are at risk for cervical cancer. It occurs most often in women over age 30. Cervical cancer is highly preventable because screening tests (such as the Pap test) and vaccines to prevent HPV infections are available. When cervical cancer is found early, it is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
The main cause of cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. HPV also causes other cancers, including vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and some head and neck cancers. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives.
Most of the time, HPV goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems The immune system can fight off HPV naturally. If the body does not clear the HPV virus, it stays in the body for many years before it causes these cancers. It is not known why HPV goes away in most, but not all, cases.
Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early—
The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
The Pap test is recommended for all women, and can be done in a doctor's office or clinic. Women should start getting regular Pap tests at age 21, or within three years of the first time they have sex—whichever happens first. In addition to the Pap test, the HPV test may be used to screen for cervical cancer, along with the Pap test, in women aged 30 years and older. It also may be used to provide more information when a Pap test has unclear results.
If you have a low income or do not have health insurance, you may be able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. To find out if you qualify, call your local program or 1-800-CDC-INFO.
HPV vaccines protect against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer. Two HPV vaccines are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by CDC. These vaccines are Cervarix® (made by GlaxoSmithKline) and Gardasil® (made by Merck). Both vaccines are very effective against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause most cervical cancers. So both vaccines prevent cervical cancer and precancer in women.
CDC recommends that all girls who are 11 or 12 years old get three doses (shots) of either brand of HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer and precancer. Gardasil® also protects against most genital warts. Girls and young women ages 13 through 26 who were not vaccinated earlier should get all three doses of an HPV vaccine. Gardasil also is approved for boys ages 9 through 18 to reduce their chance of getting genital warts.
Most health insurance plans cover the cost of vaccines, but you may want to check with your insurance provider before going to the doctor. If you don’t have insurance, or if it does not cover vaccines, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help. Through this program, children younger than 19 years of age who are Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native, or have no health insurance can receive vaccines at reduced cost.
More Steps to Help Prevent Cervical Cancer
These things may also help lower your risk for cervical cancer—
Use condoms during sex.*
Limit your number of sexual partners.
*HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered. (CDC)