With timely screenings and the proper prevention methods, cervical cancer can be found early — when a cure is most possible — or avoided all together. Thanks to advancements like the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine and new screening guidelines, cervical cancer is claiming fewer lives every year.
But many women remain unaware that there are science-backed ways to lower their risk. In fact, over 13,000 new cases are still diagnosed in the U.S. and more than 4,000 women die from cervical cancer annually. Howard Saul, DO, a gynecologist/oncologist from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden and Willingboro, New Jersey, weighs in on the simple steps that you can take to avoid a diagnosis.
1. Get the HPV vaccine up until age 26
HPV is an infection that’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, most often during sex or sexual activities. It has over 150 different strains, some of which can lead to cancer, including cervical, vaginal, penile, anal and oral cancer. Getting vaccinated can help protect against all of these cancers, explains Dr. Saul.
Vaccination against HPV begins in childhood. The series of HPV vaccines is recommended for girls and boys who are 11 or 12 years old, although it can be started as young as age 9.
If you didn’t get the series as a teen, you can still get vaccinated up to age 26 for women, age 21 for men. Even if you already have HPV, you should still get vaccinated if you’re under the age limit. Why? “Because the HPV vaccine protects against many strains of the virus, not just one. Even if you have HPV, it’s unlikely that you’d have multiple strains,” says Dr. Saul.
There currently isn’t a vaccine available to protect men and women over age 26, so taking other preventative steps is key.
2. Go for routine screenings
Following routine screening guidelines can help your OBGYN detect cancer cells at an early stage, when the disease is still highly treatable.
Cervical cancer screening involves Pap testing, or “Pap smears,” starting at age 21. During a Pap test, your OBGYN will ask you to lie on the examining table with your legs in the stirrups. He or she will use a speculum, a lubricated metal tool, to open your vagina and inspect your cervix. Your doctor will then use a brush or another tool called a spatula to gently scrape a sample of cervical cells and send it to the lab for testing.
How often should you go for Pap testing?
Before age 30: Every three years
After age 30:
- Every three years unless your doctor also tests you for HPV.
- If you also get tested for HPV and both results are negative, you can get your next Pap test in five years.
- The HPV test can be done on the same cervical cells that your doctor collects during your Pap test.
“One of the big reasons why we still see cervical cancer today is that many women don’t go for Pap smears,” says Dr. Saul. “In fact, a recent study suggests that the incidence of cervical cancer may be higher than previously thought.”
The study, which was published in the journal Cancer, accounted for the number of women who have had hysterectomies and therefore are no longer at risk for cervical cancer. Once those women were removed from calculations, the rates rose, especially among older black women. “Therefore, screening and taking steps to reduce one's risk are all the more important,” adds Dr. Saul.
To find out about Pap testing from an OBGYN in your area, use Sharecare’s Find a Doctor Tool.
3. Practice safe sex
Each sexual partner presents a new opportunity to come in contact with HPV. “Even if you have a single sexual partner or you’ve only had one sexual encounter, you're still ‘having sex,’ in a way, with all of the people that he or she has slept with before you,” says Dr. Saul. That is, you’re exposing yourself to all of the sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs) that they could have picked up before you. Having fewer sexual partners can reduce your risk of STIs and cervical cancer.
If you have sex with multiple partners, use a condom—even if you’re on birth control. “Wearing a condom offers protection against HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases like HIV,” says Dr. Saul. HIV, which weakens the immune system, can also increase your risk of cervical and other cancers.
It’s important to use protection during oral sex as well. If you’re going to perform oral sex on a male partner, have him wear a condom. For a female partner, use a dental dam, or a piece of latex that may be used as a protective barrier.
If you’re in a committed relationship, have a frank discussion with your partner about whether or not you’ll only have sex with each other — don’t assume that you’re on the same page. If you suspect that your spouse or partner has been sexually active outside of your relationship, both of you should get tested for STIs.
The age of your first sexual encounter may also determine your risk for cervical cancer, says Dr. Saul. The immunity of a young woman’s cervix is immature; her ‘transformation zone,’ or an area of the cervix that’s more prone to infections and abnormal cell formation, hasn’t fully developed. It’s less able to defend against viruses than the transformation zone of a mature woman, he explains.
Your cervix becomes better able to defend itself starting at around age 20. If you’re going to engage in sexual activities before 20, it’s especially important to use a condom or a dental dam for protection.
4. Get help quitting tobacco
“Cigarette smoking can worsen HPV and put you at risk for cervical cancer because tobacco damages the transformation zone, decreasing protection for your cervix,” warns Dr. Saul. “Most people think of cigarette smoking as affecting the heart and lungs. They don’t understand that it can affect the cervix as well.” In fact, women who smoke are more than twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as non-smokers, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Having a partner who smokes can increase your risk too, adds Dr. Saul. “Researchers have found nicotine in the cervixes of women whose husbands smoke, even when the women themselves aren't smokers.”
Find expert advice, support and tips for quitting on Sharecare’s Quit Tobacco page.
5. Include vitamin A rich foods in your diet
Vitamin A may offer some protection against cervical cancer, according to a 2012 review of over 11 studies. The benefit is even greater when vitamin A comes from foods rich in beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is a plant pigment that’s responsible for the orange color of certain fruits and vegetables. It becomes vitamin A after your body absorbs it.
“To increase your vitamin A intake, include more orange foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and winter squash,” recommends Dr. Saul.
To learn more about symptoms, diagnosis or treatments for cervical cancer, visit Sharecare’s cervical cancer topic page.