About 12,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with cervical cancer each
year and 4,000 die from it annually. With early detection, however, the
survival rate for cervical cancer is 91 percent, and thanks to all the
available health screenings and vaccines, cervical cancer is highly detectable,
treatable, and preventable. Bozeman Health is separating fact from fiction
with this myth-buster about cervical cancer.
Myth: Cervical cancer is not preventable
Cervical cancer is one of the more preventable types of cancer. Providers
can treat pre-cancer, essentially preventing cervical cancer before it
starts. The most effective screening is a pap smear that detects pre-cancerous
cells. Another screening is the HPV (human papillomavirus) test, which
identifies strains of the virus that put women at higher risk for cervical
cancer. Providers can catch 90 percent of cervical cancer cases through
pap smears and HPV tests.
There are two types of HPV vaccine for females between ages 11 and 26 which
protect against high risk strains known to cause cervical cancer. Women
26 and older can have the vaccine, but it won’t be effective if
they already have been exposed to these strains.
Myth: If you contract HPV, you will get cervical cancer
Not all strains of HPV are linked to cervical cancer. More than 100 related
viruses make up the most common sexually transmitted infections in the
U.S. About 80 percent of sexually active people contract HPV at some point
but most will never know they had it because the immune system fends off
70 to 90 percent of infections before any symptoms occur.
Myth: HPV is treatable
There is no treatment for HPV. However, the immune system typically resolves
most genital HPV infections within two years. Health care providers cannot
treat HPV itself, but they can catch and treat pre-cancerous cells caused by HPV.
Myth: Condoms prevent HPV
Condoms provide a limited amount of protection against HPV, but since HPV
is transmitted through sexual contact, not just intercourse, HPV still
may be transmitted. An HPV study at the University of Washington found
that condoms may prevent the transmission of HPV by up to 70 percent,
leaving 30 percent of condom users at risk.
Myth: A pap test is the same as a pelvic exam
A pelvic exam is a physical exam of the pelvis, vagina and pelvic floor.
A well-woman visit may include a pap test, which is a screening for cervical
cancer, along with a pelvic exam, breast exam and physical. Frequency
of pap testing depends on age, previous test results and when a woman
becomes sexually active. Women should have a well-woman exam every year
even if they do not need a pap smear.
Myth: Cervical cancer typically shows immediate symptoms
Early pre-cancers and cervical cancers usually don’t produce noticeable
symptoms. By the time cervical cancer reaches an advanced stage, symptoms
may include abnormal vaginal bleeding, unusual discharge, pain during
sex, pelvic pain, leg or back pain, a single swollen leg, weight loss
or loss of appetite and fatigue. Women experiencing these symptoms should
talk with their provider; they may be caused by something other than cervical cancer.
Myth: If you’ve had a hysterectomy, you can’t get cervical cancer
Women who have had a partial hysterectomy should continue getting screened
for cervical cancer. However, if they have had a total hysterectomy, during
which their cervix and uterus were removed, they should no longer have
pap smears or HPV tests.