Prevention Works to Protect Cervical Health

Proper screening and vaccination do a great job at guarding cervical health. Still, there are 12,000 cervical cancer US diagnoses annually–and more than 4,000 women die each year as a result, according to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition.

The leading threat to cervical health is HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. HPV alters the cells of the cervix, causing changes that can lead to abnormal cells or cancer. Often, cervical cancer doesn’t develop until a woman is in her 60s.

This common virus is easy to prevent with a vaccine, which comes in three doses. The vaccine provides up to 99 percent protection against acquiring and spreading HPV. It also prevents the development of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers, pre-cancers and lesions, and genital warts.

The HPV vaccine is the most effective when children—girls and boys—get three full doses by 12 years old. The course of inoculations can begin as young as age nine. Those who don’t get vaccinated during childhood should receive inoculation before sexual activity starts.

Additional Risks to Cervical Health

Besides HPV infection, these are other threats to cervical health:

  • Not getting regular Pap tests. Regular Pap tests help doctors detect abnormal cells. These cells can then be removed, which usually prevents cervical cancer.
  • A weakened immune system. Infection with HIV (the precursor to AIDS) can increase the risk of cervical cancer. Certain medications that suppress the immune system also increase the risk.
  • Smoking. Women who smoke are nearly twice as likely to develop cervical cancer as women who don’t.
  • Unhealthy eating. Women with diets low in fruits and vegetables and women who are overweight compromise their cervical health.
  • Past or current chlamydia infection. Chlamydia is spread by sexual contact.
  • Extended birth-control pill use. Using birth control pills for five or more years may slightly increase the risk. The risk decreases when women stop using birth control pills.
  • Bearing many children. Women with HPV infections who giving birth to three or more children may have a slightly increased the risk.
  • Sexual intercourse before the age of 18.
  • Having many sexual partners, and having partners who have had many partners themselves.
  • First full-term pregnancy at a young age. Women who were younger than 17 during their first full-term pregnancy are almost two times more likely to get cervical cancer later in life than women who waited until they were at least 25 to get pregnant.
  • Poverty. Many low-income women have had inadequate access to health care, so they are not screened or treated for cervical pre-cancers–a real threat to their cervical health.
  • Family history. A woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer are two to three times higher if her mother or sister had it than if no one in her family did.
  • Diethylstilbestrol (DES). DES is a drug that was used to prevent miscarriage between 1940 and 1971. Women whose mothers took DES while pregnant with them develop this cancer more than would normally be expected. The risk seems to be highest in women whose mothers took the drug during their first 16 weeks of pregnancy. (The FDA stopped the use of DES during pregnancy in 1971.)

The North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute’s Gynecologic Oncology Center works with patients to develop personalized cervical cancer treatment programs. We target every aspect of the cancer, support patients with immune-boosting therapies, reduce pain and improve quality of life.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)