Cervical Cancer—a Health Risk That You Can Prevent

Cancer — this scary disease is becoming the No. 1 killer in more states as deaths from heart disease have dropped.

Unfortunately, many of us have cancer risks we may not even know about. If you’re a woman, one of your risks is cervical cancer. And your risk is higher if you’re over age 30.

Cervical cancer is caused by a persistent infection of the human papilloma virus (HPV). It’s a surprisingly common virus passed from one person to another during sex. Most women who are exposed don’t even know it because their immune system keeps the virus in check.

About 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with this disease every year. That amounts to 32 women getting the news every day that they have cervical cancer. Your risk of cervical cancer can increase if you:

  • Smoke.
  • Have HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another condition that reduces your body’s ability to fight off health problems.
  • Have used birth control pills for five or more years.
  • Have given birth to three or more children.

How Can I Tell If I Might Have Cervical Cancer?

Cervical cancer may not show symptoms in the early stages. Once advanced, it may cause unexpected vaginal bleeding or discharge (such as after sex), pain during sex or pain in the lower belly or pelvis.

The best way to diagnose cervical cancer and reduce your risk is to have a test. Your health care provider can give you guidance about the testing that’s right for you.

  • The Pap test, or Pap smear, looks for a precancerous condition called dysplasia, a change in cells that precedes cancer. You should start getting Pap tests at age 21 and repeat every three years.
  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes. Starting at age 30, women should also have HPV DNA testing every five years.

Is There a Vaccine for the Virus That Can Cause Cervical Cancer?

Your provider can advise you about getting the HPV vaccine to protect against the types of HPV that cause most cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. Even with the vaccine, regular Pap tests are still recommended.

If you have a child (girl or boy) older than 9 years, visit with your health care provider about giving your child the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is most effective when given before a person is sexually active. Even though males can’t get cervical cancer, they can spread HPV.

What Is the Treatment for Cervical Cancer?

Fortunately, with early detection through regular Pap tests, cervical cancer is one of the most treatable cancers. Getting the HPV vaccination and avoiding unprotected sex can help prevent cervical cancer.

If you need treatment for cervical cancer, ask your provider for a referral to a gynecologic oncologist — a doctor trained to treat cervical cancer and other women’s reproductive system cancers.

Your doctor will visit with you about options that may include surgery and possibly chemotherapy and/or radiation. If you have a diagnosis of cervical or other a different cancer, getting a second opinion from another qualified physician will help you make the best decisions for you and your treatment.

Meet the Author

Scott Kamelle, MD is a board-certified Gynecologic Oncologist at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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