Four Things to Do This Year to Prevent Cervical Cancer
Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP
During this time of year, lots of women are mulling over better health strategies. Most focus on losing weight or improving their diet in hopes of addressing the biggest threats like cancer and heart disease. Not surprisingly, cervical health is rarely on the radar of those eager to start the month off on the right foot, but I’m here to convince you otherwise.
Your cervix is more important than you probably realize. It is literally the gatekeeper for your uterus, keeping unwanted things like bacteria and viruses out and letting important things pass through, like sperm, menstrual fluid and babies.
This year, 13,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 4,000 will die from the disease. The number one cause is human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Roughly 79 million American men and women have HPV, and 14 million new cases will be diagnosed in 2020, mostly among teens and people in their early 20s. HPV is tricky, because most sexually active people get it at some point, but it usually goes away on its own and causes no health problems. While there are more than 100 types of HPV, only 14 are known to be cancer causing, and it can take years —sometimes even decades — before cancer develops as a result.
Science is on your side, however. The HPV vaccine and cervical cancer screening combine for a one-two punch to significantly decrease your cervical cancer risk. Regular Pap tests can detect abnormal cervical cell growth before it becomes cancer, and the HPV vaccine prevents 92% of HPV-related cancer cases.
As a result, improved cervical health is one of the easier goals you can achieve this year. You don’t need to spend endless hours at the gym or deprive yourself of the things you love to be successful. Here are four things you can do to protect your cervix in 2020 and beyond:
- Get a checkup. Pap tests are typically done at your annual exam and provide the first indication of any abnormal cell growth, which could eventually develop into cancer. Generally, we recommend a Pap test every three years after the age of 21, or before if you are sexually active. Talk to your health care provider about other risk factors that may necessitate earlier or more frequent tests.
- Consider an HPV vaccine. Ideally, preteens get the HPV vaccine because there is a better immune response at age 11 or 12, and because the goal is for people to receive the vaccine before they become sexually active. After that window, the CDC recommends men and women under the age of 26 be vaccinated. Now, the vaccine has been approved for expanded use for men and women aged 27 to 45, so talk to your health care provider about whether it makes sense to get the vaccine.
- Practice safe sex. Condoms reduce the risk of STI transmission, but they cannot guarantee protection. Limiting the number of sexual partners, using a condom and getting health checks before engaging with a new sexual partner will help protect you from HPV.
- Don’t smoke. Women who smoke are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer, so avoid the bad habit and spare your lungs — and your cervix.
There is no time like to present to revamp your health. Taking better care of your cervix may be one of many improvements you hope to make this year, but thankfully it’s easy to check off the list. If you haven’t been to your health care provider lately, make an appointment to talk about the ways you can protect your cervix. It’s a minimal time, maximum reward commitment, so do yourself a favor and prioritize taking care of your cervix.