Cervical cancer is preventable, but people often feel uncomfortable talking about it because of its link to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).
Don't be embarrassed, a cancer expert advises.
Not only does your doctor want to help you, but the virus is incredibly common, affecting most American adults, according to Dr. James Aikins Jr., chief of gynecologic oncology at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, in New Brunswick.
Aikins offered some additional advice and reassurances.
Cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV, he said. While people with healthy immune systems can typically clear the virus within one to two years, high-risk strains can infect specific cells of the cervix. This can result in abnormal cell growth and changes that can lead to cervical cancer.
“Although abnormal Pap results can seem scary, abnormal results don't necessarily mean you have cervical cancer,” Aikins said in a Rutgers news release.
People can help prevent future HPV cases and cervical cancer by getting vaccinated. The vaccine is available for both males and females starting at age 9.
Regular Pap and HPV testing can detect any precancerous changes that may occur in cells. Screening is so important because high-risk strains of the virus don't present with any symptoms.
Typically, 21- to 65-year-old women are screened, with frequency rates depending on age and other circumstances.
Aikins said it's important to get screened for cervical cancer, even if you and your partner have had the HPV vaccine.
“If you're nervous about your Pap test, you are not alone, but it's important to remember that a few minutes of potential discomfort can save your life,” he said. “Also, remember that your doctor is not judging you — their main concern is your health.”
More than 14,000 women in the United States will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Cervical cancer doesn't have symptoms until the cancer has grown and spread to nearby organs or tissue. At that point, symptoms can include abnormal vaginal bleeding, heavy periods and pain in or around your pelvic region.
Though cervical cancer isn't contagious, HPV can spread through intimate contact. It may also cause cancers in the anus, penis, vagina and back of the throat.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the HPV vaccine.
SOURCE: Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, news release, Jan. 2, 2023