January marks Cervical Health Awareness Month in the United States, an effort by the National Cervical Cancer Coalition to promote early cancer screenings and spread information about the Human Papillomavirus.
In the past 40 years, cervical cancer has dropped from being the leading cause of death among American women, largely thanks to the increased number of women getting Pap tests. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, just fewer than 4,000 women died from cervical cancer, marking a 2 percent decline since 2000. Cervical cancer can be caused by HPV, which infects skin cells. There are more than 200 known types of the virus, some of which are low risk and may only cause discomfort through genital warts, and some of which are higher-risk and can lead to precancerous symptoms and eventually cancer.
HPV infection is very common — sexually active individuals have at least a 50 percent chance of contracting the virus in their lifetime according to the Centers for Disease Control — but normally the body is able to fight off and clear out the infection just as it does with any other virus. But in some cases, the infection persists and precancerous lesions occur.
It is still not clear what makes the precancerous cells form in some people, but there are some things, such as smoking, which can increase the chances, said Dr. Susan Modesitt, associate professor and Director of the Gynecologic Oncology Division in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. “Smoking won’t cause the cancer,” Modesitt said. “But if you’re exposed [to HPV} and you smoke, you essentially double or triple your risk [of contracting it].”
HPV-caused cervical cancer is preventable if the correct screening and prevention measures are taken, said Dr. Linda Duska, associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology.
“Pap smears and HPV testing are the most effective way to prevent the infection from progressing,” Modesitt said. “Women between the ages of 21 and 30 should be tested every two to three years and if both [tests] are negative, we recommend tests every three to five years in women over 30.”
Both Duska and Modesitt emphasized prevention is key, and that the best method of prevention is the HPV vaccine, which is covered by most insurance plans. More women are vaccinated than men, but that isn’t necessarily how it should be, Modesitt said. “Men are carriers and should be vaccinated as well,” she said. “Not only does it protect the women, but it also helps prevent [the men] from getting genital warts and certain other types of cancer.”