Cervical cancer: Debunking 7 myths
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, a great time to talk about this very preventable cancer affecting the lower part of the uterus — and debunk some of the myths.
The best way to prevent cervical cancer is to find and treat any abnormal cells in the cervix years before cancer can develop, says Sarah Chen, MD, an obstetrician/gynecologist at the MultiCare Women’s Center in Kent.
Yet each year more than 4,000 women die from cervical cancer in the United States and more than 12,000 new cases are diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.
The most effective preventive steps you can take, Dr. Chen advises, are:
- Avoid exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Most cervical cancer is due to infection caused by certain strains of HPV. It’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, so the more people you have sexual contact with, the greater your risk.
- Get vaccinated. HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over six months, offering protection from the high-risk viral strains. The vaccine is recommended for females age 11 to 26 and for males age 11 to 21.
- Get regular Pap tests. This allows doctors to look for cellular changes in the cervix — known as cervical dysplasia — that happen before cancer develops. Ask your doctor about the Pap schedule that’s right for you. Women age 30 to 64 are encouraged to get a HPV test at the same time as their Pap.
Now, let’s set the facts straight!
Myth #1: My sexual activities don’t include intercourse, so I’m safe.
HPV is contracted through skin-to-skin contact rather than bodily fluids. The virus can be spread to or from the genitals, mouth, throat or anus during sexual activities. In fact, nearly a third of cancers affecting the mouth and throat are linked to HPV.
Avoiding sex with men isn’t fool-proof protection, either. Genital HPV infections are found even in lesbians who have never had sex with a man, according to a study at the University of Washington.
Myth #2: I don't have to get the vaccine until I start having sex.
The HPV vaccine works most effectively if received before you become sexually active and are potentially exposed to the virus.
Remember: It’s recommended for females age 11 to 26 years and for males age 11 to 21.
Myth #3: I need an annual Pap and pelvic exam if I’m sexually active.
Although Pap tests used to be recommended every year, guidelines now call for once every three years, unless you have had an abnormal result in the past.
Pap tests are recommended starting at age 21, regardless of when a woman becomes sexually active. Even if you've had the HPV vaccine, you still need Pap tests.
Myth #4: I can skip Pap testing now that I’m older.
Half of women diagnosed with cervical cancer are 35 to 55 years old, and 20 percent are older than 65.
In fact, screening for cervical cancer is recommended until at least age 70 — and longer if you have not had three normal test results or have had abnormal results in the past 10 years.
Most women who develop cervical cancer haven’t had a Pap screening in many years, if ever.
Myth #5: I’m not sexually active so I don’t have to worry about HPV and cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer takes 10 to 20 years or longer to develop. Women who are not sexually active still need regular Pap tests to check for changes to the cervix that may result from long-ago exposure to HPV.
Myth #6: I have HPV so I’m doomed because there's no treatment.
Relax! Most sexually active people — 75 percent, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition — get infected with HPV at some point in their lives. In most cases, our bodies clear the infection naturally without treatment.
There are more than 100 types of HPV; two types account for 70 percent of cervical cancer.
Although there’s no treatment for the virus itself, there are many ways to treat diseases caused by HPV.
Areas of the cervix that show abnormal cell changes can be removed during a visit to your OB/GYN. Remember that detecting and treating pre-cancerous cellular changes is the surest way to prevent cervical cancer.
Myth #7: Cervical changes mean my partner has been unfaithful.
HPV exposure may occur months or even years before a woman develops any symptoms or a test detects the virus. Your partner may have a persistent HPV infection that led to changes to cervical cells gradually.
Learn about the HPV vaccination from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
This story was originally published in January 2015 and updated in January 2016.
About The Author
For two decades, Kathleen has been writing about how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy. She is the mother of a college student and an ornery cat. Away from her writing desk, Kathleen loves to garden, read mysteries and hike with her husband. More stories by this author