You probably hear less about cervical cancer than about breast cancer, but it’s an important health topic to address with your provider.
Why is Cervical Health Important?
Cervical health is crucial for several reasons. The cervix (neck of the uterus) plays a key role in a woman's reproductive system, which is important for fertility, pregnancy, overall reproductive health, and sexual health.
The cervix is also a common site of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. This virus is spread through close skin-to-skin touching during sex. When HPV goes undetected, it can cause changes to the cervical cells that can lead to cervical cancer over time.
Fortunately, an HPV vaccine can help protect against cervical cancer by stopping the spread of many types of HPV in both females and males. In addition, regular screenings can help women protect their cervical health by detecting problems at the earliest stages.
How to Take Care of Your Cervical Health
Still, several myths can prevent women from taking care of their cervical health. Let’s dispel the most common myths here:
Myth: Cervical cancer only affects older women.
Fact: Cervical cancer can affect any woman at any age. About 11,500 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 4,000 women die from this disease in the U.S every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
Myth: Cervical cancer only affects women who have had multiple partners.
Fact: Cervical cancer can affect women regardless of their sexual history.
Myth: I’m not likely to get HPV, so I don’t have to worry about it.
Fact: Most sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, though most will never even know it, according to the CDC. It’s most common in people in their late teens and early 20s. It’s also not just a problem for women. There are around 40 types of HPV that can affect men and women.
Myth: Getting the HPV vaccine will encourage sexual activity in young men and women.
Fact: Some people also believe the vaccine will give a false sense of security to young women and men, meaning if they get the vaccine they can’t get the virus. What this vaccine – like other vaccines – does is give a layer of protection to prevent passing the virus, thus preventing cervical cancers in women.
Myth: My child is too young for an HPV vaccine.
Fact: Most young girls and boys will get the vaccine around the age of 11-12. I recommend getting the HPV vaccinations as early as 9 years old.
Myth: I’m an adult and it’s too late for me to get the HPV vaccine because I have already been sexually active.
Fact: Although most protective when done prior to sexual activity and exposure, I recommend getting the vaccine in your 20s, 30s or up to age 45 (which is the most current age cap). Although the effectiveness may be reduced due to possible previous exposures to types of HPV, it still provides a layer of protection for men and women from contracting a strain they haven’t been exposed to yet.
Myth: Getting a Pap smear is all I need for cervical health.
Fact: Regular cervical cancer screenings are vital because they can detect any abnormalities or precancerous changes in the cervix, allowing for early intervention and prevention of cervical cancer.
Many women will think they have had a Pap smear with routine pelvic exams. A Pap smear is in fact a screening of the cervix itself. There’s also an HPV screening test. Recommendations on timing of cervical cancer screening can vary. Until rates of HPV vaccinations increase, the general recommendation is for a baseline Pap smear beginning at age 21 and co-testing with Pap smear and HPV test at age 30.
In some circumstances based on individual risk factors, the frequency may be altered. Every individual should be assessed for individual circumstances and risk factors. Talk to your provider about what’s best for you.
Myth: Pap smears are too painful to have regularly.
Fact: Oftentimes there’s a lack of knowledge about the test, or women are not being prepared for the screening. Talk to your provider if you are concerned. It helps to know what to expect. When discomfort occurs, it is usually temporary. The benefits of screening and early detection far outweigh the short-term discomfort.
If you have additional questions about cervical health, reach out to your Women's Health provider today.