Last year, 11,270 new cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed and another 1.2 million women will develop dysplasia, a condition which left untreated will turn into cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is a malignancy that develops in tissues of the cervix: the organ which connects the uterus to the vagina. It is preventable, slow-growing (so that it can be detected and cured early in its course), and is nearly always caused by infection from the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Cause: Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV – a highly contagious virus which can be transmitted easily by skin to skin and sexual contact.
• At least half of all sexually active Americans contract HPV during their lifetimes
• About 20 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 50 carry the virus.
• There are more than 100 types of HPV – of which more than a dozen (termed “high risk types”) can cause cervical cancer.
• Most often, a person’s immune system kills off the virus without intervention
• Exposure to high risk types of HPV is more likely to lead to cancerous changes of the cervix in women who smoke or whose immune system is impaired.
Prevention: Cervical cancer can be prevented by
• Having no intimate contact with either men or other women
• Obtaining the HPV vaccine – which can immunize against two high risk types of HPV (types 16 and 18), which cause about 70% of cervical cancers. It is given as a series of three injections over a period of six months. The vaccine is now FDA-approved for females and males between the ages of 9 and 26, although many physicians recommend the vaccine up to age 50 for sexually active women and men who have sex with men.
• Screening and treatment for early evidence of pre-malignant changes to the cervix
Screening: The “pap smear” (Papanicolaou test) is used to screen for cervical cancer as part of the gynecological examination. It can reveal early, pre-malignant changes to the cervix. It is done by gently scraping the cervix with a wooden or plastic spatula and then by inserting a very small brush into the opening of the cervix. The cells thus obtained are then evaluated by a commercial laboratory.