January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. Get screened. Get vaccinated.

January 11, 2022 Swedish Women's Health Team

[3 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • Cervical cancer is the most preventable of all gynecologic cancers, thanks to screenings and HPV vaccinations.
  • HPV vaccination combined with regular screenings helps prevent cervical cancer and detect it in its earliest stages when most treatable.
  • January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, putting the focus on prevention and vaccination to fight this preventable disease.

Not that long ago, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death for women in America. But now, thanks to screenings and vaccinations for human papillomavirus (HPV),cervical cancer is the most preventable of all gynecologic cancers.

January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to remind people with cervixes everywhere about the critical role early detection and HPV vaccination plays in protecting their health. About 12,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed every year and up to 93% of them are preventable, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

“Cervical cancer is actually quite preventable – not always – but most of the time,” says Gynecologic Oncologist Joshua Press, M.D. “It has a very specific cause that's understood and specific risk factors that you can avoid. There’s a screening test that can detect it early and we can treat it while it’s either pre-cancer or a small early cancer,” he explains. “Ideally, if HPV vaccination programs go well, we’ll see less and less cervical cancer over time.”

What is cervical cancer?

Cervical cancer occurs when an abnormal growth of cells develops in the cervix. The cervix is located at the lower section of the uterus. It connects the vagina to the upper area of the uterus.

In its early stages, cervical cancer does not cause recognizable symptoms. And once signs begin to appear, they are often mistaken for other conditions such as urinary tract infections or menstrual cycle issues.

As cancer progresses, symptoms may include:

  • Bleeding between periods, after menopause or after sex
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Frequent urination
  • Pain during urination

Who’s at risk for cervical cancer?

Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, which is very common. In fact, 80% of people who are sexually active will be infected by HPV at some point in their lives, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Most infections go away on their own, but those that don’t may eventually lead to cervical cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
  • Smoking
  • Using oral contraception for five or more years
  • Giving birth to three or more children
  • Having several sexual partners

The importance of prevention

Pairing HPV vaccination with regular screenings can help prevent cervical cancer or detect it in its earliest stages when it’s most treatable.

HPV vaccination

The HPV vaccine protects against the types of HPV responsible for most cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers. The vaccine is most effective if administered before a person becomes sexually active and may be given as early as age 9. It’s given in a series of either two or three shots, depending on the person’s age when getting the first injection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommends:

  • Children aged 11-12 years old should receive two doses of HPV vaccine given six months to a year apart. Vaccination can start at age 9.
  • Children aged 15 and older should receive three doses of HPV vaccine given over a six-month period.
  • Everyone through age 26 should get the HPV vaccination if they are not already fully vaccinated.

“The HPV vaccine is very effective at preventing infections if you get it before the infection occurs,” says Dr. Press. “Get vaccinated,” he urges.

Screening for early detection

Two types of tests are used to screen for cervical cancer:

  • A Pap test detects cell changes on the cervix that have the potential to become cancerous if left untreated.
  • An HPV test detects the virus that causes those cell changes to occur.

The timing for and type of screening you require depends on your age. The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening schedule, which emphasizes the importance of HPV testing:

    Age 25

     Begin cervical cancer screening

Ages 25-65

Primary HPV test is done by itself every five years

or 

HPV test with Pap test every five years

or 

Pap test every three years

Over age 65

Those who have had regular, normal screenings for the past 10 years should not be screened.

but

Those with a history of serious cervical pre-cancer should continue to be tested for at least 25 years after diagnosis, even if testing goes past age 65.  

“Ideally, the Pap test will detect an issue when it’s still pre-cancer. says Dr. Press. “If you can detect cervical cancer when it’s still small and has not metastasized, then your cure rate is going to be as high as 80% or 90% if you're catching it in stage 1. If it’s metastatic, it’s very rare that we would cure it. That’s the importance of screening. If you detect it before cancer cells develop, it’s much easier to treat.”

Treating cervical cancer

Traditional treatment for cervical cancer varies according to several factors, including the severity of the disease and the patient’s age, overall health, and preferences.

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery such as hysterectomy, cone biopsy, or laser therapy to remove the cancer cells from your body.
  • Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and stop their spread.
  • Chemotherapy is medication taken orally or through an injection that destroys cancer cells or prevents cancer from spreading.
  • Targeted therapy uses medication to destroy cancer cells – often with less damage to normal cells than is possible with other treatments.
  • Immunotherapy uses your body’s immune system to help it fight cancer.

“Historically, surgery and/or radiation therapy have been the best way to treat cervical cancer. And the smaller it is, the more likely you can cure with just surgery,” says Dr. Press. “In the patients with advanced cancer and the disease is metastatic, immunotherapy drugs combined with standard chemotherapy has improved outcomes for more effective treatment. Those drugs have now been FDA-approved and are becoming the standard of care for someone who's got a new diagnosis.”

Research

The Swedish Cancer Institute (SCI) is one of the leading clinical trials sites in the western United States, with more than 140 clinical studies under way at any given time around most types of cancer, SCI-led research is playing in vital role in the understanding and treatment of cervical cancer. 

"Cervical cancer is a disease that can be largely prevented or detected early by screening, however, it's much more challenging when it has reoccurred," says Charles Drescher, M.D., Director of Gynecological Cancer Research at Swedish. "Over the past year, SCI Gynecological Oncology Program investigators were excited to offer multiple clinical trials, including several novel immunotherapies for this at-risk group. We are committed to changing patients' and families' lives through innovation around the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cervical cancer."   

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Find a doctor

Swedish Cancer Institute - Gynecologic Oncology and Pelvic Surgery specializes in gynecologic cancers and complex gynecology. The practice features six gynecologic oncologists who have been serving the Pacific Northwest for more than 30 years and are leaders in ovarian cancer research. In addition, they have expertise in minimally invasive surgery and have successfully completed more than 7,000 robotic surgeries.

Swedish Gynecologic Oncology and Pelvic Surgery is located at 1101 Madison Street, Suite 1500 in the First Hill Madison Tower, Seattle, WA. Satellite clinics are conveniently located in the Puget Sound area in Issaquah, Bellevue, Renton, and Everett.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call: 206-991-2000.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.

Related resources

Women’s health screening guidelines for every age

HPV vaccine and regular screenings can reduce cervical cancer risk

Our new Women’s Wellness & Specialty GYN Services, First Hill, meets a need for specialized care

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

 

 

 

About the Author

Whether you are seeking gynecological advice, need help navigating your way through the menopause stage of life or researching a recent breast cancer diagnosis, the Swedish Women's Health Team is committed to helping women find the information they need to live happy and healthy lives.

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