January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, created to help raise awareness about the importance of prevention, vaccination, screening and early detection. Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women. In 2020, an estimated 604,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 342,000 women died from the disease. However, when found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
Screening and Prevention
Infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer. HPV is an extremely common virus transmitted through sexual contact. At least half of all sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Most HPV infections resolve spontaneously and cause no symptoms. However, persistent infection can lead to cervical cancer.
In the early stages of cervical cancer, a person may experience no symptoms at all. Advanced cervical cancer may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina that is not normal. The best way to prevent cervical cancer is through early detection by getting routine pelvic exams and a Pap test, which can detect cell abnormalities that can be treated before they turn cancerous. Another screening test is the HPV test, which looks specifically for the virus that can cause these cell changes. Both of these tests can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
When found early, cervical cancer is highly treatable and associated with long survival and good quality of life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following guidelines for cervical cancer screening:
- Starting at age 21, you should start getting annual Pap tests. If your Pap test result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
- Starting at age 30 and until age 65, talk to your doctor about which testing option is right for you:
- A Pap test only. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait three years until your next Pap test.
- An HPV test only. This is called primary HPV testing. If your result is normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
- An HPV test along with the Pap test. This is called co-testing. If both of your results are normal, your doctor may tell you that you can wait five years until your next screening test.
- At age 65 and older, your doctor may tell you that you don’t need to be screened anymore if you have had normal screening test results for several years, or you have had your cervix removed as part of a total hysterectomy for noncancerous conditions.
Three vaccines that prevent infection with disease-causing HPV have been licensed in the United States. The vaccinations are available for girls and boys, starting at age 9. Teens and young adults can be vaccinated, too. Vaccine guidelines vary according to age and previous exposure, pregnancy and other factors. For more information about vaccinations, ask your health care provider or check out the current guidelines recommended by CDC.
Cervical Cancer Treatment
Depending on the stage and type of cervical cancer, treatment may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or immunotherapy. Gynecologic oncologists are specialists that care for women who have reproductive system cancers. He or she can help you determine which treatment is right for you, and explain the risks and benefits of each treatment and their side effects. Cervical cancer is generally viewed as treatable and curable, particularly if it is diagnosed when the cancer is in an early stage.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recommends women Veterans talk with their VA providers about cervical cancer screening and scheduling a Pap test at their VA facility. Women are now the fastest growing subgroup of U.S. Veterans, and VA understands their health care needs and is committed to meeting those needs.