There are often no visible symptoms of the disease, but if it's detected early, cervical cancer is one of the easiest female cancers to treat.
Genital human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It can cause cells on the cervix to grow abnormally and develop into cancer. It's not unusual for women to develop HPV since about 60 percent of them will contract the virus sometime in their life. Although a woman's immune system typically allows the virus to remain dormant, it can survive for years in some women and eventually become cancerous if not detected.
A Pap smear screening can detect HPV before it becomes cancerous. A Pap test, performed by swabbing the cervix, detects changes in the cells that may lead to cervical cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women receive regular Pap smears between the ages of 21 and 65, or within three years of the onset of sexual activity (whichever comes first). Once you have had three consecutive annual Pap smears with normal results, it is usually recommended that you get a Pap smear every three years.
Most of the women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer are over age 50. That's when women tend to stop seeing their gynecologist because they are no longer having children and don't need prenatal care or birth control pills. That's why it's very important to continue to see your gynecologist and to talk to them about getting a Pap smear.
Before the Pap smear was introduced in 1941, cervical cancer was the number-one cause of death for women in the U.S. Many of them died in their 30s. Pap smear screenings have helped reduce the death rate by more than half. According to the CDC, six out of 10 cervical cancers occur in women who have never received a Pap smear or have not been tested in the past five years. About 90 percent of women whose cervical cancer is detected by a Pap smear will survive.
Gardasil and Cervarix, two HPV vaccines approved within the last few years, have proven to be the most effective defense against cervical cancer. The vaccines are recommended for girls ages 11 to 12 and may be given as early as age 9. The CDC recommends women ages 13 to 26 receive a vaccine if they haven't already been vaccinated.
The vaccines, however, are not intended to replace Pap smear tests because they don't protect women from all types of HPV. So doctors continue to stress the importance of getting screened for cervical cancer every three years for most women. Pap smears and the HPV vaccines are benefits of most HMSA health plans.