How to Prevent Cervical Cancer

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Cervical cancer is usually caused by alterations in the cervix that take place slowly over time. Human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, is the leading risk factor. Lifestyle approaches and vaccination may help prevent you from getting HPV infection. Screening with regularly scheduled Pap smears and gynecological examinations can identify very early pre-cancerous changes so that you can get effective treatment before cervical cancer develops or advances. 

Lifestyle

Some lifestyle habits can lower your risk of becoming infected with HPV and can reduce the chances of cervical cancer if you become infected with HPV. 

Sexual Partners

Having sex with multiple partners increases your risk of exposure to HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Having fewer partners can reduce your chances of getting the virus and spreading it to others.

Of course, it is possible to become infected with HPV even if you have only one partner if your partner has been exposed to the virus by other partners.  Most of the time, women do not know that they have HPV until changes in the cervix are detected, and men generally do not know that they have the virus. That is just one reason why screening is so important.

Condom Use

Consistent and correct use of condoms can help prevent HPV infection. Because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact of the genital areas, condoms can reduce the chances of spreading infection by adding a barrier of protection. That said, condoms do not provide complete protection against HPV, because contact with the virus can still occur even with their use.

Smoking Cessation

Not smoking reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer, although smoking is not related to whether or not you will get the HPV virus. Smoking, which is associated with a 14-fold increase in cervical cancer risk, appears to accelerate cervical dysplasia (pre-cancer cells) in women who have HPV. Smoking also depletes your overall immune function, which normally helps you fight viruses such as HPV, as well as cancer.

Diet

Research shows that a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, maintenance of a healthy weight, and regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cervical cancer. This is likely due to the fact that a healthy lifestyle optimizes immune system function and reduces the impact of cancer-promoting changes in the body. 

Additionally, a research study from South America suggested that curcumin, a spice with anti-oxidant properties, may show promise in the inhibition of cervical cancer in a research setting. Antioxidants are naturally occurring substances that we get from some types of foods (fruits and vegetables, in particular) that help counteract diseases such as cancer. 

HPV Vaccination

There are a number of different strains of the HPV virus, and vaccination targets those that pose the greatest risk of cervical cancer. 

Infection with HPV 16 and 18 represent around 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases, as well as high rates of anal, penile, head, and neck cancers. Another 20 percent of cases of cervical cancer are related to HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52, and 58. Low-risk HPV strains, HPV 6 and 11, do not typically cause cancer but may lead to the development of genital warts

Gardasil 9 is the vaccination option available in the United States; there are others available internationally. It protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58 and is recommended for those between the ages of 9 and 23 who have not yet begun sexual activity to prevent new infections and spread of HPV.  However, you can have the vaccination if you are sexually active and in this age group. 

The vaccine is given as a series of two or three shots over the course of six to 12 months. It is injected into the muscle of the thigh or upper arm and generally causes mild pain and discomfort. 

Check-Ups and Screening

If you experience any itching, bleeding, or discomfort of the vaginal area, be sure to report these problems to your doctor. These can be early signs of HPV, cervical cancer, or another sexually transmitted disease or illness. 

Of course, going for annual check-ups with your primary care doctor and/or gynecologist (or more often, if recommended) is important even if you don't have such symptoms. One main reason: You can be sure to receive your Pap smears on schedule.

A Pap smear is a screening test that can detect the majority of cervical changes associated with the development of cancer, allowing for earlier treatment when success rates are higher.  

Your doctor will obtain a sample of tissue during a pelvic exam, using a small brush that scrapes the cervix. The test is mildly uncomfortable but does not require any anesthesia. You may experience mild bleeding for a few minutes up to a few hours, but you should not have persistent bleeding or pain.  

This sample is examined under a microscope to identify irregularities in the size, shape, and organization of cells of the cervix. Abnormalities that are not cancerous are often described as cervical dysplasia. After a Pap smear, your results may take up to a week. 

Recommendations for Pap smear schedules vary by age, based on guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). A Pap smear is recommended every three years for women ages 20 to 29 and every five years for women ages 30 to 65. If you have had dysplasia in the past and were treated, you will definitely need to be checked on a regular basis—possibly on a more frequent basis than what is recommended for routine screening—in some cases with both a Pap smear and colposcopic exam.

If you are younger than 20 years old and sexually active, it is a good idea to schedule an exam with a gynecologist or with your pediatrician, as you may also need to have a Pap smear, an evaluation for STDs, as well as a plan for either pregnancy or birth control. 

Birth Control

An intrauterine device (IUD) is a method of birth control that is placed in the uterus by a physician. The position of the device prevents pregnancy, and IUDs may contain spermicidal medication as well.

A systemic analysis of 16 research studies including 12,482 women concluded that cervical cancer was one third less common in women who had IUDs. It is not completely clear why this effect occurs, but it is believed to be related to the immune system response to IUDs. 

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