Cervical cancer — the nation’s third most common gynecological cancer — is on the decrease as the result of two advancements:
- More sensitive Pap tests, which are better at detecting precancerous and cancerous changes in the cervix
- The human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine
Despite these advancements, doctors in western Pennsylvania have seen an increase in the number of women in their 30s and 40s with advanced cervical cancer.
This increase affects mainly uninsured or underinsured women who are African-American, refugees, or live in rural areas, according to Robert P. Edwards, MD, an expert in gynecologic cancers at Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC.
“The key reasons for the uptick in cervical cancer among these groups of women are that they have not seen a doctor for an annual exam and they did not receive the HPV vaccine when they were young,” says Dr. Edwards.
“The increase underscores the importance of getting routine Pap tests and the HPV vaccine,” he adds.
Getting the HPV vaccine is essential in preventing the virus that causes cervical cancer. Having regular Pap smears is important in detecting the disease at its earliest stages. That’s critical because early-stage cervical cancer is very treatable, with good survival rates and quality of life.
When the disease is diagnosed at an advanced stage, cervical cancer treatment is expensive, causes complications and side effects, and often is not effective.
Facts to Know About HPV and Cervical Cancer
Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection. Almost every sexually active person has been exposed to HPV, which often has no symptoms.
- The HPV vaccine, which received FDA approval in 2005, is nearly 100 percent effective in preventing the virus and cervical cancer when given to young women before they become sexually active. The vaccine is given as a series of shots over a period of six months.
- For girls, the ideal age to get the vaccine is between 10 and 14, although young women up to age 26 can receive it.
- Although it is not one of the required vaccines for Pennsylvania school children, the HPV vaccine is highly recommended for both girls and boys.
- Boys can get the vaccine at around age 11-12 to prevent them from contracting and spreading HPV and developing HPV-related cancers, including anal, rectal, mouth/throat, and penile cancers. There are no screening tests for some of these cancers, so they often are late-stage by the time they are found.
Robert P. Edwards, MD, is chair and professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and leader of the Ovarian Cancer SPORE grant for UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the Women’s Cancer Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Dr. Edwards specializes in immunotherapy of gynecologic oncology.