Every year, more than 12,000 American women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and more than 4,000 of those women die from the disease. And, according to a reevaluation of existing data in a study recently published in the journal Cancer, the cervical cancer death rate may actually be much higher than previously estimated. Since January is Cervical Cancer Awareness Month, now is an excellent time to educate our patients about the steps they can take to not become a part of these terrible statistics.
We know Pap smears are one of the most effective tools we have to improve cervical cancer outcomes. Half of all cases of cervical cancer occur in women between the ages of 35 and 55; it’s rarely found in women under 20, and about 20 percent of cases are in women 65 and older. That’s why we recommend regular cervical cancer screenings in our patients starting at the age of 21 and through the age of 65 or longer based on individual risk factors. Pap smears screen for a cancer that’s often symptomless, and they help spot changes in the cervix before cancer develops—when treatments are most effective. Due to widespread adherence to Pap smear testing, deaths from cervical cancer have decreased by 50 percent over the last 30 years. So, encourage your patients to attend their annual well-woman visits. Along with the opportunity to offer Pap smears and screenings, these visits provide an ideal occasion to educate patients about cervical cancer risks and prevention.
Of course, virtually all cervical cancer cases are linked to HPV. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection: 80 percent of all sexually active people will contract the virus in their lifetimes. A family history of cervical cancer increases the risk two- to three-fold, since these women may have a genetically inherited condition that makes it harder for their bodies to fight off HPV infection. The three-dose HPV vaccine protects against 81 percent of cervical cancer cases. The CDC, AAP, AAFP and ACOG all recommend the vaccine for boys and girls between the ages of 11 to 12 years old. Full vaccination reduces risk of certain HPV-related cancer by up to 99 percent; boosting vaccination rates could prevent 29,000 HPV-related cases of cervical cancer every year.
Vaccine adherence rates, however, remain low, with only about one-third of girls and just over one in 10 boys receiving their full vaccination series. Educating your young patients or those who are parents of preteen children is important. Likewise, it’s important to ask your patients in their teens and 20s whether or not they’ve been vaccinated. Even if a patient missed the recommended vaccine as a child and is sexually active, if she’s under the age of 27, it may still be beneficial because there may not have been exposure to all of the virus strains the vaccine protects against. If a patient refuses vaccination at first, it never hurts to keep offering it at future visits.
Like many things we discuss with our patients, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about HPV and cervical cancer. That’s why it’s so important to continue to encourage annual well woman visits and HPV vaccinations. For more information to help guide your conversations with patients, visit ACOG’s Immunization for Women website, shotbyshot.org, or the National Cervical Cancer Coalitions Cervical Cancer Awareness Month page.