Options to protect against cervical cancer
Erin Labesky-Scoggin, DO, is an OB/GYN, at Banner Health Center in Maricopa. For more information on this topic, consult with your doctor or call Dr. Labesky-Scoggin at (520) 233-2500.
Question: I've heard a lot lately about cervical cancer - what are some ways I can protect myself?
Answer: Thanks to significant medical advancements in recent years, women now have numerous ways to protect themselves against the development of cervical cancer. The offending virus that causes cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which is also the most common sexually-transmitted disease.
Of the 20 different subtypes of HPV, as many as 10 are considered high-risk and associated with cervical cancer. Low-risk subtypes of HPV cause genital warts but do not contribute to the onset of cervical cancer.
HPV sub-types 16 and 18 are considered responsible for the majority of cervical cancers, while sub-types 6 and 11 are the culprits for genital warts. A vaccine called Gardasil, which is non-infectious and derived from DNA, received approval several years ago from the Federal Drug Administration to protect against HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18. The vaccine is recommended for both males and females age 9 to 26, and studies have shown its effectiveness for preventing cervical dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition, as well as cervical cancer itself in women.
However, anyone who receives the Gardasil vaccine must remember it does not protect from other forms of sexually-transmitted diseases, including additional sub-types of HPV, nor is it a form of birth control.
Another effective tool to identify cervical cancer in its earliest stages is the Pap test. A Pap test is a gynecological screening test that checks for changes in the cervix that might indicate cervical cancer. Though women of all ages used to have Pap tests annually, over the years, the guidelines have changed regarding how frequently this screening tool should be used.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests that women between the ages of 21 and 30 have a Pap test every other year, and an HPV test is highly recommended, even if they received the Gardasil vaccine. Women in their 30s should continue to have Pap tests every two years, continuing until at least age 65 or later, depending on certain risk factors. After three consecutive Pap tests with normal results, a woman can extend the time between tests to three years, as long as she does not have HPV, her immune system is not compromised by another condition, and she does not have dysplasia, a benign condition where normal cervical cells are replaced by abnormal cells. Women under 21 have a very low risk for cervical cancer, so only those who have been sexually active for three years should have a Pap test.
Because every patient is unique, a woman should work with her doctor to determine if she is a candidate for Gardasil, to establish an appropriate cervical cancer screening schedule, and to learn more about preventing sexually-transmitted diseases. A woman should still visit her physician for annual breast and pelvic exams, even if she is not scheduled for a Pap test. And of course, she should be proactive about her body and always discuss any new symptoms or changes in her health with her doctor.