The cervical cancer death rate has decreased by more than 50 percent over the last 40 years, yet 13,000 women are still diagnosed yearly, according to American Cancer Society.
As researchers continue to compile data, one finding is clear: Skin-to-skin contact causes human papillomavirus (HPV) and HPV causes cervical cancer.
“Essentially, 95 percent of cervical cancers are connected to HPV,” said Dr. Dale Larson, a Marshfield Clinic obstetrician and gynecologist.
Cervical cancer risk factors
Statistics try to tie other risk factors to cervical cancer:
- Chlamydia infection
- Long-term use of birth control pills
- Use of intrauterine device
- Multiple full-term pregnancies
- Younger than 17 at first full term pregnancy
From a bigger picture though, these risk factors are basically linked to more sexual partners, causing more possible HPV, causing more cervical cancer risk, Larson said.
It’s not the birth control that causes cervical cancer,” he said. “It’s that, statistically, women who are on birth control have more sexual partners, increasing their risk for HPV and in turn for cervical cancer.”
Is there a risk factor not linked to sexual activity?
Smoking is linked.
“Just like tars in nicotine concentrate in your lungs, they also concentrate in the cervical mucus,” Larson said. Women who smoke are almost twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer, according to American Cancer Society.
Prevention: HPV vaccine
Vaccines can prevent HPV, but they must be received well before becoming sexually active.
Children should get the HPV vaccine starting at age 11 or 12. The vaccine requires two doses over six to 12 months apart for girls and boys ages 9-14. For vaccination at age 15 or older, three doses are necessary over six months.
If never vaccinated, or if an adolescent did not complete the two doses, it is recommended to receive the HPV vaccine between ages 13 and 26, Larson said.
Prevention: Cervical screening
Cervical cancer screening can detect abnormal cells on the outside of the cervix, including cervical cancer.
Screening recommendations are as follows:
- Younger than age 21: Do not screen
- Age 21-30: Pap test every 3 years (if normal)
- Age 30-64: Pap test every 3 years or co-testing (pap and HPV test) every 5 years
- Older than age 65: Do not screen if normal results the prior 10 years
- After hysterectomy (including removal of the cervix): Do not screen if normal pap tests 10 years prior.
- If history of cervical cancer or cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer): Screening more often is usually required until 20 years out from treatment with normal tests.
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