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The top 4 ways to lower your risk of cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is highly preventable. Follow these steps to help protect yourself.
Any type of cancer is serious. But some forms of it can be caught and treated early, or even prevented in the first place. Cervical cancer is one of those preventable types.
“Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide,” says Ana Sujata Madariya, MD. She’s an ob/gyn with Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Auburn, Massachusetts. But it’s far less common in the United States than it used to be.
In fact, women today are about half as likely to get it as they were in the 1970s. And they’re 2.5 times less likely to die from it.1
That’s largely thanks to modern screening methods, says Dr. Madariya. Today, doctors can find signs of cancer early, when it’s easier to treat. So how can you help lower your risk of cervical cancer? Find out below.
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What is cervical cancer and what causes it?
Cervical cancer happens in the cells of the cervix. This is the lower end of your uterus near the vagina. Like other cancers, cervical cancer starts with damage to a few cells. Then those cells grow out of control.
Experts don’t know what causes many cancers. But for cervical cancer, most cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is an extremely common virus. Nearly everyone will get HPV in their lifetime.2
It’s spread mainly through sex and other intimate skin-to-skin contact. That includes vaginal, anal and oral sex. HPV usually has no symptoms, so you might not even know if you’ve had it.
“Practically all women have a chance of getting cervical cancer,” says Dr. Madariya. “That’s because HPV is so widespread. And it’s the main cause of cervical cancer.”
Only a small number of women with HPV will get cervical cancer, though. And now, doctors can help you stay safe from the most concerning form of HPV and find it before it turns into cancer.
What can you do to prevent cervical cancer?
Here’s the good news. Cervical cancer is highly preventable. But you need to take the right actions. Regular screenings are one of the best ways to stay safe. Screenings can find problems before they turn into cancer.
In one study, more than half of cervical cancer cases were in women who hadn’t been screened in the past 5 years.3 But screenings aren’t the only way to help prevent it. Here are four steps you can take to keep yourself and your children safe.
1. Get the HPV vaccine for yourself or your kids
Stopping HPV infection is the first line of defense against cervical cancer. Today, there is a vaccine (shot) that can keep you safe from HPV. Everyone ages 9 to 26 can get it. Ideally, children should get the shot at age 11 or 12.4 It works best when a young person gets it before they start having sex. Ask your family doctor about getting your kids the HPV shot.
Keep in mind that the vaccine is for boys, too. Men can spread HPV to women. And HPV can cause certain cancers in men as well, like:
- Anal cancer
- Cancers in the throat
- Cancer of the penis
If you’re between ages 27 and 45, ask your doctor about getting the vaccine. After age 45, it most likely won’t help you. “By then, most people have been exposed to HPV,” says Dr. Madariya.
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2. Get screened for cervical cancer
If you didn’t get the HPV vaccine in your teens or early 20s, don’t worry. Your doctor can screen you for HPV. They can also look for changes that might lead to cancer.
Your primary care doctor or gynecologist may do these screening tests during your physical or well-woman exam. The doctor will need to do a pelvic exam to do the test. Your doctor will open your vagina with a special tool so that they can see your cervix. Then they’ll take a sample of cells with a soft brush.
The sample will go to a lab for one or both of two tests:
- Pap smear: This test looks for changes in cells that can turn into cancer.
- HPV test: This test checks for the types of HPV that are likely to cause cancer.
Both of these tests can help your doctor find problems before they turn into cancer or early signs of cancer.
Cervical cancer develops slowly. You generally only need to get these tests every 3 or 5 years. Here’s what the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests:5
- If you’re 21 to 29 years old, get a Pap smear every 3 years.
- If you’re 30 to 65:
- You can keep getting a Pap smear every 3 years.
- You can switch to getting an HPV test every 5 years.
- You can get an HPV/Pap test every 5 years.
- If you’re 65 or older, talk to your doctor about whether you need to be screened.
Other organizations may have slightly different screening guidelines. Your doctor will help you decide when to get screened, and what test to take. You might also want to check with your health plan to see what’s covered.
What does it mean if a result isn’t normal? It doesn’t mean you have cervical cancer. But your chances of getting it may be higher. Your doctor may want to screen you more often. Or they may do more testing to evaluate the problem.
3. Practice safe sex
You can also help prevent HPV by using protection during sex. Condoms are best, says Dr. Madariya. They can block skin-to-skin genital contact. That’s what helps stop the spread of disease. Keep in mind, condoms are not 100% effective at stopping infection. But it is better than no protection at all.
Remember, other forms of birth control, like pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs), can’t keep you safe from HPV or other sexually transmitted infections. They only prevent pregnancy.
4. If you smoke, quit
“Smoking is very strongly linked to cervical cancer,” says Dr. Madariya. She explains that smoking weakens your immune system. And that can make it harder for your body to fight off viruses like HPV.
HPV is hard to avoid completely. But having a strong immune system helps your body fight it off, says Dr. Madariya. And that can lower your chance of getting cervical cancer later.
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- National Cancer Institute. Cancer stat facts: Cervical cancer. Accessed February 23, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV Infection. Last reviewed February 10, 2023. Accessed February 23, 2023.
- 3. Cancer Medicine. A population study of screening history and diagnostic outcomes of women with invasive cervical cancer. Published June 2021. Accessed February 23, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV vaccination recommendations. Last reviewed November 16, 2021. Accessed February 23, 2023.
- U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Cervical cancer: Screening. Published August 21, 2018. Accessed February 23, 2023.
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