The American Cancer Society estimated that nearly 14,500 new cases of cervical cancer would be diagnosed in 2021. How can you avoid becoming part of the statistic? Regular screenings and the HPV vaccine can greatly reduce your risk.
It’s hard to believe, but as recently as the 1970s, cervical cancer was considered a highly deadly form of cancer. Women who were diagnosed with the condition had few options for effective treatment, and the disease was rarely detected until it was very advanced.
“In the past few decades, we’ve made significant advancements in detecting and preventing cervical cancer,” says Robert Chin, MD, PhD, OB/GYN with West Tennessee Medical Group Women’s Health. “We now have the tools to prevent the condition and to detect it in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable.”
Even before the HPV vaccine was approved in the early 2000s, the incidence rate of cervical cancer had dropped significantly due to more women undergoing screenings that detect cervical changes before they become cancerous. Between the mid-1970s and early 2000s, the incidence rate dropped by 50 percent.
The HPV vaccine has added another tool to prevent cervical cancer, one that’s making a huge impact. Read on to learn more.
Understanding Cervical Cancer
Before we dive into how cervical cancer can be prevented, let’s first talk about what the condition is. Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the cells of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus.
This type of cancer is slow to develop. The cells in the cervix first develop what’s known as “precancerous” changes, which are abnormalities that aren’t yet cancerous. Over time, those changes can develop into cancer.
That’s why cervical cancer screenings, such as the Pap smear, are so important. Both can detect those abnormalities before they develop into cancer. When severe precancerous changes or cancer are present, they can be removed as a followup to these screenings.
The Connection Between HPV & Cervical Cancer
You may have heard about a test called an HPV test, which is often performed in conjunction with a Pap smear. This type of screening looks for the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that’s incredibly common. Around 85 percent of people who are sexually active will get HPV at some point in life, with many unaware that they even have it.
Some strains of HPV increase the risk of developing cervical cancer, and HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer.
Why the HPV Vaccine Is a Gamechanger
The first HPV vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2006. Another variety of vaccine was approved in 2014.
Both types of vaccine are designed to prevent the types of HPV that are associated with precancerous changes and cancer. While cervical cancer is often caused by HPV, HPV is also tied to other types of cancer, including anal cancer, throat cancer, penile cancer and cancers of the vagina and vulva. HPV also causes genital warts.
Because it’s best to receive the vaccine before being exposed to HPV through sexual contact, it’s recommended for both boys and girls at ages 11 or 12. But it’s also indicated for use in those ages 12 through 26 and may even be used in those who are older if a doctor recommends it.
“Since the HPV vaccine was approved, the number of HPV infections has dropped significantly,” says Beckie Johnson, certified nurse midwife with West Tennessee Medical Group Women’s Health. “According to the CDC, infections with the types of HPV most commonly tied to cancer have decreased by nearly 90 percent.”
Cervical precancers have also decreased, dropping by around 40 percent in girls and women who have been vaccinated.
Need more evidence that the HPV vaccine works? These two recent studies are pretty clear:
- A 2020 study from researchers in Sweden with nearly 1.7 million participants over an 11-year period found a nearly 90 percent reduction in cervical cancer incidence.
- A 2021 study from researchers in the UK found that the HPV vaccine reduced cervical cancer incidence by 87 percent and also lowered the number of pre-cancers.
If you’re wondering whether the HPV vaccine is right for you or your child, talk with your medical provider. He or she will be able to review the benefits of the vaccine with you and talk about when it should be given.
West Tennessee Medical Group Women’s Health specializes in providing obstetric & gynecological care. Call (731) 587-5321 to schedule an appointment.