Cervical Cancer: The Preventable Gynecologic Cancer
Cervical cancer is highly preventable with regular screening tests and follow-up. It also can be cured when found and treated early. Vaccines are available to protect against the most common cause of cervical cancer, human papillomavirus (HPV).
HPV is a common virus that can be passed from one person to another during sex. At least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives. Most of the time, it goes away by itself within two years and does not cause health problems. The immune system can fight off HPV naturally. If the body does not clear the virus, over time it can cause cervical and other cancers, including vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile, and some head and neck (oropharyngeal) cancers.
Two tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early—
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for precancers, which are cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
- The HPV test looks for the virus that can cause these cell changes.
The Pap test is recommended for women between ages 21 and 65, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic. Women should start getting Pap tests regularly at age 21. If your Pap test results are normal, your doctor may say you can wait three years until your next Pap test. If you are 30 years old or older, you may choose to have an HPV test along with the Pap test. Both tests can be performed by your doctor at the same time. If your test results are normal, your chance of getting cervical cancer in the next few years is very low. Your doctor may then say you can wait as long as five years for your next screening.
If you have a low income or do not have health insurance, you may be able to get a free or low-cost Pap test through CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program. Find out if you qualify.
HPV vaccines protect against the types of the virus that most commonly cause cervical cancer. Two HPV vaccines are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by CDC. These vaccines are Gardasil® (made by Merck) and Cervarix® (made by GlaxoSmithKline). Both vaccines are very effective against HPV types 16 and 18, which cause most cervical cancers.
CDC recommends that all girls and boys who are 11 or 12 years old get three doses (shots) of either brand of HPV vaccine to protect against cervical cancer and precancer. Gardasil also protects against most genital warts.
HPV vaccines are recommended for all teen girls and women through age 26, who did not get all three doses of the vaccine when they were younger.
Although boys are not at risk of cervical cancer, vaccinating boys is likely to slow the spread of the types of HPV that can cause cancer. HPV vaccines are recommended for all teen boys and men through age 21, who did not get all three doses of the vaccine when they were younger. The vaccine also is recommended for gay and bisexual men (or any man who has sex with men) and men with compromised immune systems (including HIV) through age 26, if they did not get fully vaccinated when they were younger. All men may get the vaccine through age 26, and should ask their doctor if getting the vaccine is right for them.
Most health insurance plans cover the cost of vaccines, but it’s a good idea to check with your insurance provider before going to the doctor. If you don’t have insurance, or your insurance does not cover vaccines, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program may be able to help. Through this program, people younger than 19 years of age who are Medicaid-eligible, American Indian or Alaska Native, or have no health insurance can receive vaccines at reduced cost.
More Steps to Help Prevent Cervical Cancer
These things also may help lower your risk for cervical cancer—
- Don’t smoke.
- Use condoms during sex.*
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
*HPV infection can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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