January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and serves as a reminder to all women to talk with their physician about the risks of developing cervical cancer, what causes it, and what they can do to prevent it.
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2016 an estimated 12,990 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,120 will die from the disease. With access to vaccination and regular screening, most of these cases could be prevented.
The death rate from cervical cancer, which was once one of the most common causes of cancer death for American women, has dropped by more than 50 percent over the past 30 years, thanks in large part to screening with the Pap test.
“The majority of cervical cancer cases in the U.S. could be prevented with HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines, which have been recommended for a decade,” said Richard C. Wender, M.D., chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society. “In fact, about 90 percent of all cervical cancers could be prevented with screening and HPV vaccination.”
According to Dr. Wender, despite the enormous potential to reduce suffering and death from cervical cancer, millions of women who should be screened are not getting screened. The HPV vaccination rate among youth has been widely underutilized.
The American Cancer Society recommends the HPV vaccine to be given to girls ages 11 to 12. Cervical cancer screening with a Pap test should start at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every three years. Women aged 30 to 65 should have an HPV test with a Pap test every five years. Another option is to have just a Pap test every three years. Women over 65 years who have had regular screening with normal results should not be screened. Women who get the HPV vaccine still need to get regular screening for cervical cancer.
Uninsured women or those without a regular health care provider are significantly less likely to receive cervical cancer screening. Still, studies show about seven in 10 women who had not been screened in the previous five years had a regular doctor and health insurance.
“Cancer is a disease that can affect anyone, but it does not affect everyone equally,” said Dr. Wender. “Statistics show that some minority populations and people who lack health insurance are more likely to develop cancer – and die from it – than the general U.S. population. The opportunity to prevent death and suffering from cervical cancer is real. Screening can find changes in the cervix before they turn into cancer, and vaccination can prevent most cervical cancers. If we can apply what we know today, it is possible we may see a day when cervical cancer is virtually eliminated.”